Though wind power production is growing fast, the energy production always fluctuates depending on the speed of the wind, which causes a large variation in the extracted power.

Anirudh Bhanu Teja Nelabhotla, our next pathbreaker, works as Research & Development Engineer at Biowater Technology AS (Tønsberg, Norway), a wastewater treatment company that not only removes pollutants from wastewater, but also converts them into a renewable fuel such as biogas.

Anirudh talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his PhD on Biogas Upgrading at University of South-Eastern Norway, based on the concept of Power to Gas (PtG), developed as an alternative to address the unreliable nature of wind and solar electricity.

For students, a circular economy is the way to go. But there are more questions than there are answers, and we need more innovations to make renewable energy a practical reality !

Anirudh,  tell us about your early years?

I grew up in many regions of India starting with the East in Assam till 4 years of age, followed by Chennai, Nagpur, Nellore and Hyderabad. My father used to work in the Indian Air Force and had transfers all over the country. It was my early schooling in Chennai where the influence of armed forces dawned on me. My father also encouraged me to take up entrance tests to various military schools. I had managed to get a seat in one of the Sainik Schools, however, my mother had different ideas. I continued my schooling in Nagpur, Nellore and finally in Hyderabad after my father took voluntary retirement from the Air Force. As most of my high school was based in Andhra-Telangana, I was heavily influenced by the engineering entrance test preparation phenomenon without much extra curricular activities. However, I was very fond of volleyball, kho-kho and quiz competitions which I took part in when I was studying in a private school in my home town in Nellore for 2 years. 

The only thing I was sure of when I completed 12th was to get out of Andhra-Telangana and thereby home. Although I secured a good engineering rank through the state entrance test, I chose a less preferred course in BITS-Pilani, Pilani Campus. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I took up a potential dual degree course in Biology (MSc) in BITS-Pilani, Pilani Campus. Depending on my performance, I would be able to take up an eligible engineering degree (BTech) after my 1st year. As it turned out, I was not eligible to take any popular dual degree and chose to just continue with an Integrated master’s in biology as my main and only degree.

For my 2nd post-graduation, I took up MSc in Clean Technology at Newcastle, United Kingdom. The course, in essence, is like a Masters in Environmental Engineering dealing with pollution and waste abatement technologies. I then did my PhD in Biogas Upgrading from Norway.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

Rachel Armstrong who is a professor of experimental architecture was invited to be one of the guest speakers at BITS-Pilani tech festival. She talked about the importance of sustainability and how she experiments with integrating sustainability into architecture. It was quite an influential moment for me. Although the architecture part did not interest me, it was the way she spoke about sustainability that motivated me and made me think of applying my knowledge in biology towards sustainability. One of the ways of doing that was biofuels.

Many of my seniors and PhD students in BITS-Pilani were really helpful in mentoring and guiding me through the right path by talking to me, working with me and by not only showing me the steps they had taken but also their work ethic. 

Further along the way, there were some key scientists and professors such as Dr. Nivedita Sahu in IICT, and Prof. Sue Haile in Newcastle University who encouraged me and guided me to a stable career path in this field.

The tech festival at BITS-Pilani really exposed me to different kinds of research topics in different areas which made me realize I was inherently drawn towards ideas that incorporated sustainability and biofuels. The more I participated in conferences, the more I was determined to work in this field.

My first 6-months stint at Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT), Hyderabad was a real turning point, I got the job only because I impressed the interviewee, a reputed scientist Dr. USN Murthy with my ideas and plans about my career. At that point, my job search was mainly based on the experience and knowledge I gained through my lab courses and not my grades, as they were not up to the mark. Although I was not the suitable candidate for the position I went for the interview, Dr. Murthy called me back and offered me an open position to work on my ideas until I could find a suitable position elsewhere. As fate would have it, I was able to produce publishable work during those 6 months while helping out with some of the department’s ongoing work. Later, I found a vacant position in a bioethanol project in an adjacent department and worked there for 18 months, before pursuing my master’s. This experience gave me immense confidence that grades need not be the only thing that defines one’s career. But in a society that is driven based on numbers and percentages, it can be difficult to detach oneself from that pressure. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

My first project at BITS-Pilani was a study oriented project (SOP) on Biohydrogen production in my 2nd year: SOPs are a type of graded course offered as an alternative to regular classroom courses encouraging students to come up with their own topics and conduct a review of existing literature to identify research gaps, project future outlook and develop interest in the field of study. 

Biological hydrogen production (BHP), as the name suggests, is carried out by bacteria or algal cultures in a reactor under the right conditions. Fuel cells use electricity to split water, whereas BHP uses microorganisms and their metabolism to split water. The challenge here is to enhance the gene activity that produces the enzymes/proteins to generate hydrogen gas as this is generally an intermediate product in the metabolism.

The whole idea of using microorganisms to our benefit was very fascinating to me. It is then that I decided to work in the field of biofuels, as I was able to see a strong future for the field. At that point, I just wanted to work on anything related to biofuels.

Next, I did a summer internship at NIMHANS, Bangalore. My uncle helped me get an internship in NIMHANS where I tried to understand one of the loopholes in biohydrogen production through the study of protein structures and protein modeling, but without much guidance.

My 2nd project at BITS-Pilani was a Lab-oriented Project on Biodiesel Production: Similar to SOPs, LOPs are graded courses offered by the university to work in the lab on existing projects. I secured a lab-oriented project on biodiesel production from algae, by supporting an ongoing PhD. I worked on growing algal cultures under different stress situations and measured their impact on biodiesel production. It was fascinating to see how algal cultures were grown on a large scale, using raceway ponds as opposed to small glass flasks in the laboratory.

My final year project was at TERI- The Energy Resource Institute, Delhi on Biogas production. For the final year project, I wanted to work in a lab outside of the university. I emailed many scientists and professors to secure such an internship anywhere in India. I was able to find a project on food and vegetable waste treatment to produce biogas via anaerobic technology. This was a very different experience both scientifically and personally. I learnt many new techniques in practice that I came across in the classes.

My first job was as Project Assistant – 1 at IICT: After graduating from my integrated MSc (Biological Sciences) from BITS-Pilani with a not so impressive GPA, I needed some luck (as mentioned before) to get into IICT where I continued my work on biohydrogen production with better protein modeling tools (Bioinformatics) and better guidance which led to publishing my first research article.

Later, I secured a position of Project Assistant – 2 at IICT. I went through another interview within IICT to officially change to a real time project on biofuels. I secured a position in the fermentation team of an Indo-US project on 2nd generation bioethanol production. I would consider this as my first wholesome job experience, where I worked in a team of 6 amazing members guided by 3 different project leaders in partnership with 5 other research institutes including University of Florida. As per my job description I worked on the final step of bioethanol production where sugars extracted under innovative strategies from secondary plant parts of sugarcane, sorghum etc. were converted to ethanol by novel microorganisms. 

What led you to pursue a 2nd masters abroad?

I did my 2nd Master’s in Clean Technology from Newcastle University. It was a challenge to secure a good PhD position in India and I realized that if I wanted to pursue a career in biofuels, I would have to try abroad and get away from the bureaucracy and unfair competition. I convinced myself and my parents that it was the only way to expose myself to varied knowledge, varied opportunities, and a fair competition. I concentrated on applying to universities in the UK as the masters courses there were only 1 year long and I was not interested in going to the US. It was also my plan to pursue a PhD in Europe later where biofuels as an alternative fuel is taken more seriously than in the US. 

I studied a course named Clean Technology at Newcastle University, UK which dealt with various aspects of pollution related to air, water, land, and numerous methods of pollution abatement based on technologies as well as analytical methods. It was a very comprehensive course run by a competent professor who was kind and extremely student friendly. As part of the course, I took up a project in Nestle, to analyze their current wastewater treatment solution and how they could optimize it for multiple factories that are located nearby through a concept called industrial symbiosis. Although I never regret my low GPA (grades) in BITS-Pilani, I was glad that I ended up No.2 of my class at Newcastle.

My goal was to do a PhD in Germany after my Master’s in the UK and I was so prepared for such a prospect that I learnt German language in the evenings when I was working at IICT. But, as fate would have it, I couldn’t find the right match for a PhD in Germany while I was applying and instead got a position in Norway, a country whose name I might have seldom heard in my life until then. Anyway, it turned out to be a better deal as PhD in Norway is like a full time job and you get a full time salary with a visa considered equivalent to H1B in the US or work visa in Europe. 

Tell us about your PhD research

I did my PhD on Biogas Upgrading at University of South-Eastern Norway. The topic falls under the umbrella of Power to Gas (PtG), a concept that came up due to the unreliable nature of wind and solar electricity. In Europe, especially in Norway and Germany, wind power production is growing fast, however, the production always fluctuates depending on the speed of the wind. The concept of PtG was developed as one of the alternatives to trap the overproduced energy that can be used to compensate for underproduced energy. So, in my PhD, we used microbial electrochemical reactors combined with anaerobic digestion and the overproduced electricity (excess or otherwise) to convert carbon dioxide to methane with help of hydrogen (or protons) produced from treating additional wastewater.

The PhD was a great experience where I had full freedom in designing my own experiments and solving the many challenges along the way. It is only super-powered when you have a great mentor like Dr. Carlos Dinamarca. Moreover, the university itself is deeply integrated with the society as well as nearby industries, opening up opportunities for full scale trials and full scale implementations of successfully developed technologies at the university. This is also where I was introduced to my current employer, Biowater Technology. 

How did you get your first break?

I always considered myself to be better at interviews where I can present myself as the suitable candidate and showcase my knowledge. But it was always a struggle to get to the interview stage with my below average grades. This is where I needed some luck.

My first 6-months stint at Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT), Hyderabad was a real turning point where I got the job only because I impressed the interviewee, a reputed scientist Dr. USN Murthy with my ideas and plans about my career. At that point, my job search was mainly based on the experience and knowledge I gained through my lab courses and not my grades, as they were not up to the mark. Although I was not the suitable candidate for the position, I went in for the interview. Dr. Murthy called me back and offered me an open position to work on my ideas until I can find a suitable position elsewhere.

The university I did my PhD in maintained good relations with surrounding industries and businesses through collaborative research projects. One such company was Biowater Technology. Although I never met with anyone from the company or worked on common projects during my PhD, I had a pretty good knowledge of what the company did. I was very confident that Biowater Technology is most suitable for me and my career plan. I just applied for an open position and was invited for an interview. My good grades in my Masters definitely helped me this time. Certainly, a positive recommendation from my PhD supervisor sealed the deal.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Trying for a PhD in India

While I was working at IICT, I was trying to secure a PhD scholarship through the ever-complicated CSIR-NET entrance exam and failed three times.

I could score well in GATE and was eligible for an interview in IISc Bangalore’s ecology division. However, the project of my interest was in the environmental division for which I was not allowed to interview even though the cutoff score was lower. This was due to a technicality in the name of my BITS-Pilani degree which was Biological Sciences instead of Environmental engineering.

There were also a bunch other PhD programs in IISERs, TIFR, TERI etc. for which I was rejected due to my low GPA and was never called for interviews.

After these failed attempts to get a PhD in India, I had to shift my focus to studying abroad and start with masters to improve my grades.

How I secured a PhD in Europe

My goal was to study for a PhD in Europe and I approached it by first pursuing a Masters in the UK to understand and gain perspective on the research field in Europe. I started my master’s course in September 2015 and started applying for PhDs and some jobs right from January 2016. I started first by approaching European university professors directly by emailing them for any upcoming vacancies in their research projects. The other approach was to find PhD vacancies in job search sites such as Euraxess. Euraxess is a comprehensive website with all the available PhD and Post-Doctoral positions in Europe, which is where I found the PhD program I got into. 

I had applied for the position online with a CV, cover letter and most importantly, a short description of my research proposal. The research description should outline one’s approach towards solving the issue at hand. This might sound impossible to do with just one line of research topic given to you. The candidate’s thought process here must be not about trying to solve the issue with one great solution, but to present a 3–4 year plan of experiments that are fundamentally correct and scientifically justified in order to understand most of the issues at hand, which need not be the exact approach you follow during the actual PhD. After a successful written application, I had to attend an online interview which tested my knowledge based on my education and previous projects. 

Where do you work now? 

I currently work as an R&D Engineer for Biowater Technology, a wastewater treatment company in Norway. Although I did a PhD, it was never my intention to get into academia, in fact it was the opposite. I always wanted to work in the industry, by applying my research for the benefit of the society. I was glad my PhD was at a university which had strong industrial ties. Many of the PhDs at my university in Norway are conducted in partnership with industry either to test the theories or directly implement novel solutions to the problems that the industry is facing. 

Biowater Technology is one such company which not only designs similar technologies but is always in search of new challenges to be solved together with other industries and sometimes in partnership with universities.

What problems do you address?

I am mostly involved with the Research & Development team in my company which designs and operates pilot plants for wastewater treatment at municipal and industrial plants. The municipal wastewater treatment systems in place in Norway are quite advanced compared to what we have in India, they remove not only solid particles but also organic matter at a high rate. However, there are always new restrictions coming into effect that require the municipal plants to work at better efficiency or remove other pollutants such as Nitrogen, Phosphorus and soon, micro-pollutants. These challenges vary depending on the type of wastewater the municipal treatment plants receive. 

These challenges are much more complicated with industrial customers where the wastewater is much more concentrated with different kinds of pollutants. Our company uses a patented anaerobic technology, called HyVAB, for treating wastewater with high concentration of pollutants. Apart from producing clean water after the process, there is an added advantage of using HyVAB as it also produces Biogas, a renewable fuel. A large part of my job goes into sizing, designing and operating these plants either in pilot scale for trials or full scale when the trials are successful.

What are the skills required for your role?

When I say designing a wastewater treatment plant, I am mostly responsible for the biological design of the reactor and associated processes such as biogas production and handling. This mainly deals with skills such as calculating the load, flow, efficiency and size of the reactor. Training the operators to handle our wastewater treatment plants involves mechanical troubleshooting and chemical analysis of different components of wastewater. These analyses help operate the treatment plant at optimum conditions. These two skills are what I have developed through my previous projects and PhD. I had to develop some new skills such as AutoCAD for developing P&ID Piping and Instrumentation Diagrams, mechanical skills such as selecting the right instruments for specific use that include sensors, pumps etc. I continue to learn these skills gradually as I work with my skilled colleagues who have expertise in this area.

What’s a typical day like?

It might sound as a cliche, but no days are really the same and that is what I really like about my job. For a couple of days I might be designing a plant using some calculation tools on excel. On other days I might be working on-site setting up and maintaining our pilot plants, while on some other days I might be training one of our customers on the operation of our pilot or full-scale plant. I am also working together with our mechanical team with some process inputs so the whole team is on the same page regarding the design of our wastewater treatment plants. But the most interesting part of my job is listening to our customers about their wastewater issues and coming up with various strategies to tackle those issues. I communicate these strategies with my colleagues and come up with a plan to put into practice some of the selected strategies in our pilot plants. Apart from this, as part of the R&D team, we are always in search of funding for new research projects, working on technical reports and publishing the latest developments. 

How does your work benefit society? 

As described above, we are directly working with real customers on their wastewater issues which directly reduce the pollutants they are releasing back into the environment. Moreover, we are not just removing pollutants, but converting it into a renewable fuel such as biogas using HyVAB. It gives me immense satisfaction that I can create such an impact and I am grateful for all the people who have helped me to reach such a position. I must especially thank my wife Sruthi Subramanyam who was always by my side during these ebbs and flows of my career and has always encouraged me and shown the brighter side of things.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

Our company uses mobile pilot plants as a tool for introducing our HyVAB technology to potential customers. It is a 20 feet shipping container with all the necessary equipment fitted in. We have recently built our 4th and most advanced containerised pilot unit with a lot of learnings gained from our previous experiences. Designing, building and testing this reactor has been one of the most satisfying and memorable experiences for me. I can’t wait to put it into use in a project aimed at removing micro-pollutants such as PFAS from wastewater.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

As pointed earlier, don’t get bogged down by low scores or failed entrance exams. There are a number of other ways you can create an impact in this society. Don’t get disappointed when something doesn’t go according to your plan. Plans can and will change and being open and flexible can take you to better places than following a solid path that has probably worked out for many others.

Future Plans?

Right when I decided that I wanted to work in the field of biofuels or sustainability sector, in the 2nd year of BITS-Pilani, I had a vision of creating a smart city/township that would be a circular economy, meaning all the resources it uses and waste it produces stays within the township and remains sustainable on its own. However, as I gathered more knowledge and practical experience, my aim has become more realistic where I am able to do something on my own in India on wastewater treatment and biogas production. I plan to achieve this by first developing more skills at my current workplace on project management which is much more complex than the knowledge I currently have on the biological process of wastewater treatment. The specifics of achieving these goals are not clear, but I am highly motivated to face the challenges along the way.