Mystic scientist's smart solution for the Big Four waste materials
When Dr Shantanu Bhowmik, Head, Research and Projects, and Professor, Aerospace Engineering, Civil Engineering, at the School of Engineering, in Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham in Coimbatore, drove down to Rameshwaram from Coimbatore one afternoon in 31 March 2018, he was shocked, and dismayed. The entire 410km stretch was strewn with plastic on both sides, spoiling the otherwise beautiful landscape.
When he reached Rameshwaram, he stood at Dhanushkodi beach which is at the tip of the Rameshwaram island and prayed long and hard to Lord Ram to give him a solution to end the plastic scourge. The point where the gentle waves of the Bay of Bengal meet the roaring bluish green waters of the mighty Indian Ocean at Arichal Munai or Ramsetu seemed to be the perfect point for the communion with Lord Ram.
The next morning the solution just came to him, said Dr Bhowmik. It was a eureka moment for him! And, with his deep faith, he sees it as a divine blessing. In India, the spiritual capital of the world, it may not seem as incredulous a way to arrive at answers to practical problems.
His next stop was Delhi where, on 11 April 2018, he made a presentation to the NITI Aayog - his idea was well received. Once back in Coimbatore, he discussed the solution with his students Akash Jayakumar, Akash Vineeth and Avihas Balaji, who started working on the project under his supervision at the university. They worked diligently on experimenting with tons of plastic waste procured from the campus, making the product and finally after long hours, days, weeks, and months of testing, they had their products – useful products made from non-recyclable plastic and thermocol, that could also solve the problem of affordable housing for India’s millions.
At the end of the project they set up the company R-Cube Plastics. Through R-Cube, they went for full-scale production and shared their know-how across the country.
On the face of it, Dr Shantanu Bhowmik looks like the archetypal scientist-academic, quiet, friendly, mild mannered, with an affable smile, and often lost in deep thought.
Yet, from him have come some of the most unusual and incredible statements that could come from a science and tech academic. Our logical mind may not understand them, yet to meet someone like him forces us to acknowledge the power of deep faith.
About a year ago, a popular website had featured R-Cube Plastics as a startup with an innovative solution to recycle waste plastics and produce products that are more economical, of better quality, and with various applications and with properties similar to those of virgin plastic.
Being part of the waste management circle, we greeted the R-Cube innovation with exuberance, and continued our work in the grassroots, to find ways to maximize the recovery of waste material from households for recycling. Little did we imagine that we would meet Dr Shantanu Bhowmik, the innovator of this technology, right here in Pune.
Dr. Shantanu Bhowmik, a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Roorkee, heads the Research and Projects at School of Engineering and also teaches at the Departments of Aerospace Engineering and Civil Engineering at School of Engineering, Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Coimbatore. He is also Adjunct Professor, Center for Future Materials, University of Southern Queensland, Australia.
He has published over 150 research articles in polymeric composite, nano composite adhesive bonding and surface engineering related to aviation, space and nuclear applications in international journals and international conferences, 3 book chapters, filed 7 patents and 7 invention disclosures.
An intensely patriotic person, Dr Bhowmik has been associated with several top universities and institutions abroad in Canada, the Netherlands, South Korea, Australia, Switzerland, and Singapore. A chance meeting with Mata Amritanandamayi in Singapore completely changed the course of his life and he decided to come back to India and work for his country. On returning to India he joined the Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham in Coimbatore, which ranks 10th in the country according to Times Higher Education rankings of 2020 among the institutions of excellence, which include the IITs.
His drive to Rameshwaram from Coimbatore one day brought to his attention the burning issue of plastic waste - the fact that India generates 26,000 tons every day, a large part of which pollutes our rivers, oceans, soil and causes the death of cattle and marine animals, to say nothing of the direct hazards to human beings.
Dr Bhowmik said that thin single-use plastic bags (also known as LDPE or low density polyethylene) have a useful life of just half an hour perhaps. This thin, soft, flexible, lightweight plastic material is used to make carry-bags for vegetables or fruit mostly, and are discarded right after a single use. If collected, these bags can be used to make roof tiles and footpath tiles/paver blocks that take a load of 15 tons compression that a truck generates. They last about 50-60 years. And after their useful life of 50+ years they can be reprocessed to make useful products again.
Crisps packets, chocolate wrappers, and blister packets for pills are all extremely difficult to recycle as they have multiple layers. Known as MLP or multi-layer plastics, these are used mostly for packaging food and keeping food fresh for longer. However, handling MLP waste has proved to be unsustainable and damaging to the environment. While it is the job of the government to ensure that manufacturers bear some responsibility for the waste their products create, there are ways to convert the MLP into useful products, says Dr Bhowmik. He has used MLP to make table tops and stool tops, and the technology for this has been already tested and is in use in the manufacture of furniture parts in Coimbatore.
Another bulky waste Thermocol (EPS or expanded polystyrene) is currently being thrown away right after use and is not being recycled. It is either dumped in the landfill, burnt openly causing air pollution or thrown in sewers leading to blockage of drains; it has caused major flooding deluges in some metros. The pity is that thermocol, despite being a high-energy plastic material, is hardly ever collected and recycled in India. Dr Bhowmik said that this flooding can be avoided by using this thermocol waste to making useful products too. He has patented a technology that uses thermocol to making molded automotive parts such as bumpers, edging of windscreens and car windows. He has shared the technology with a company in Vadodara, which has started manufacturing automotive parts using this technology.
Tetra Pak was a great innovation in food and beverage packaging and this Swedish technology was adopted across the world. It is easily identified by the fact that it looks like cardboard packaging but in fact has a silver inside lining and contains liquids. It is a waste that is very difficult to recycle because it is composite. Dr Bhowmik has used Tetrapak cartons to make cotton – this material is of a fine quality and can be used as upholstery material in the furniture industry.
Dr Bhowmik speaks like a magician when he says: “Whatever waste you give me I can convert to a good product of fantastic quality! We have the complete solution for this! And whoever wants the technology, we can offer it to them. This is indigenous, and can generate employment everywhere across the country. It can create entrepreneurs everywhere, and of course can help clean India by managing all the waste materials at source itself. After segregation, the material is cleaned, and once melted, you get the same quality as the original material. There is no pollution generated in the process either.
R-Cube Plastics products are distributed across the country – their roof tiles have replaced asbestos and tin; they are longer lasting and are insulating too, reducing the temperature as compared to a concrete slab or conventional roofing material by 6 degrees; some additives also make them fire resistant. These tiles act like thatched straw roofs which remain cool in summer and warm in winter.
Dr Bhowmik suggests that every locality could have their own segregation system and a plant with 5-6 pieces of equipment to recycle the waste generated at source to make useful products. He even suggested that a joint partnership with the municipal corporations could help. A plant of 2 tons would require approximately 3 tons of raw material.
And if all the above was not amazing enough, prepare to be surprised: Dr Bhowmik has also created lightweight bullet-proof material and lightweight blast-proof material from composite minerals that are found in India. Both these armors have been given the names of two of our greatest warrior leaders Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose for the bullet-proof vest; and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj for the blast-proof armor.
Having traveled the length and breadth of the country, much like a modern Mahatma, Dr Bhowmik has seen the way plastics have ravaged the beautiful and sacred rivers, lakes and mountains. He reminds us that “we have this life because of Mother Nature and we should respect it, not pollute it. My technology will allow many MSMEs to be set up and eventually give employment to thousands. It is a technology for all. It is in line with PM Modi’s Atmanirbhar as the technology is indigenous; it will create a clean India, an India where 70 per cent of the population lives in the villages, there will be good housing for all through PM Awas Yojana, and with the reduced cutting down of trees for building, it will also create a green India, as plastic will be used to make furniture and roofing. It’s my dream to enable a clean, green India with a technology that is made in India.”
Purnima Joshi is a founder member of Team Swachh Kalyani Nagar that works towards building active citizenship in Pune city.
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