03 June 2010

Home-brand high technology

Photo of Suresh Bhargava with two PhD students on either side

Professor Suresh Bhargava (centre) aims to use nanotechnology to help India’s poor. Photo: Carla Gottgens.

A poor mother, drawing from a well contaminated with arsenic and fluoride. A young man, living beside a factory that pumps effluent into his local river. These are the people who are front of mind for Professor Suresh Bhargava and the international team of researchers he has brought together.

"We’re looking for practical solutions to these problems that are economical and can be used by anyone, regardless of wealth or education," Bhargava says.

"Ideas like nanocomposite clays that can be used to make pots that purify dirty groundwater and make it safe to drink - it’s home-brand high technology that’s cheap, easy to use and accessible to all."

Spiralling air and water pollution have come hand-in-hand with India’s stunning economic boom.

The number of waterways no longer fit for human use is rising while, in the south, rice crop yields are falling as smog blocks the sun.

It’s been estimated that factoring in the cost of environmental degradation would halve India’s 9 per cent annual growth rate.

These issues are the focus of a new Joint Research Centre established by RMIT and India’s premier research institute, the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology.

Based in Hyderabad, the centre hosts five top-level scientists and up to 20 PhD candidates who concentrate on developing new technologies for water and wastewater treatment, renewable energy, resource reuse and air pollution control.

"The ultimate objective is to find new ways to deal with some of the most serious environmental issues facing both developing and developed countries," Bhargava says.

"Our PhD program is truly international, with supervisors from both RMIT and the IICT supporting each of the centre’s doctoral researchers.

"Working closely with Indian researchers means we can design technologies that suit local needs, but Australia will also benefit from the green solutions we develop."

On the domestic scale, cheap nanocomposite clays and liners for clay pots are being developed to remove arsenic and fluoride from drinking water.

Researchers are also expanding a catalytic wet oxidation technique developed by RMIT for the treatment of industrial waste water. 

The technology, which prevents bacteria and organics from entering waterways, has been successfully tested in alumina refineries, pulp and paper mills, and in the oil and shale industries.

Sophisticated nanotechnologies are being used to tackle elemental mercury and carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants and other heavy industries.

Researchers are working to enable the capture and reuse of CO2by combining it with methane to form syngas - a cheap renewable energy source. The conversion of mercury to a more manageable ionic form is also being investigated to significantly reduce treatment costs.

Bhargava is already fielding interest from industries eager to take advantage of the centre’s innovative approach.

"There’s great potential for Australian industries with a serious presence in India and we’re already in discussion with key multinationals interested in sponsoring joint projects," he says.

"This centre gives us the chance to give RMIT graduates in-depth exposure to the culture and working environment of the world’s second fastest growing economy.

"But just as importantly, it establishes a fantastic platform for advancing the reach of Australian science, technology and industry in India."

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