Thursday, July 25, 2013

Indo-US joint research gets big, funding jumps to $220 million

Vice-president Joe Biden wasn't joking when he said that India and the US have more science and technology partnerships between them than any other two countries. A dialogue that had begun quietly seven years ago has recently blossomed into a substantial research collaboration involving roughly 100 institutions and nearly 1,000 scientists, according to officials in the Department of Science and Technology.

The committed funding from the two countries has also risen from only $2 million five years ago to $220 million. This research collaboration has begun to tackle some of the most serious challenges facing the two countries. Nearly half of the funding goes to developing a clean energy development centre, which functions within existing Indian and US institutions.

The major partners in this from India are the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Indian Institutes of Technology (Bombay and Madras), Solar Energy Centre, Indian Institute of Chemical Technology, CEPT University, and private companies like Wipro, Thermax, Abellon Clean Energy and Schneider Electric. The prominent US partners are the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford University, University of Florida, and private companies like General Electric, Autodesk, Cookson Electronics, and Honeywell. They are trying to develop next-generation technologies in solar energy, biofuels and green buildings.

There are also partnerships in weather forecasting, healthcare and creating open government data platforms. The monsoon mission of the government of India, a Rs. 4-billion project to improve forecasts of the south-west monsoon, funds several collaborations; one of them is a monsoon desk at the National Centers for Environmental Prediction in Maryland, a US government organisation that provides weather forecasts and analyses to agencies around the world.

India is a scientific partner in the $1.2-billion telescope coming up in Hawaii, which will the most powerful so far in the world. "Indo-US collaboration in science keeps on expanding rapidly," says T. Ramasami, Secretary of the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Government of India.

The motivation for the collaboration stems from the fact that the two countries have many common problems that will benefit from joint research. Although the US is scientifically advanced, some contemporary problems require research inputs from multiple perspectives. The US could provide advanced scientific inputs to India, while India with its large scientific establishment and unique traditions could help US look at things from a different perspective. In the early stages of the programme, the decision of what to work on was left to the scientists, but now this is decided at the government level.

The Joint Clean Energy Research and Development Centre (JCERDC) is now developing next generation energy and building technologies. The most significant project in this is on solar energy, where a large team --- 15 laboratories from each country --- from both countries is trying to develop some very ambitious technologies. "In my 38 years of professional research," says Kamanio Chattopadhyay, professor at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and lead from India for solar energy, "I have not worked on a project like this. If we succeed, we could produce some path-breaking technologies in five years."

The aim of the solar energy project is develop disruptive technologies in three areas: photovoltaics, solar thermal and integration. The photovoltaic part includes developing print-jet technology, organic polymer cells, and solar cells with silicon-like efficiency with nontoxic and abundant materials. In solar thermal, which generates electricity by focusing the sun's heat rather than light, scientists are developing new kinds of reflectors and coating materials. One of its aims is to increase the efficiency and decrease the amount of land, always a constraint for implementing large solar energy projects.

In biofuels, the clean energy centre is developing technology to utilise high-biomass plants like sorghum, bamboo and pearl millet, which grow easily in Indian conditions. "These plants can withstand dry conditions and even salt," says Ahmed Kamal, scientist at the CSIR-Indian Institute of Chemical Technology at Hyderabad, who is the project lead from India. Bamboo is a special plant as it can absorb and sequester 30% more carbon dioxide than other forest plants. Current research on the so-called second-generation biofuels focuses on ethanol from cellulose.

India has started blending petrol with ethanol, whose share can rise up to 20% in four or five years. In green buildings, the aims are slightly different for the two countries. Since India is yet to construct a large number of the buildings it needs in the next few decades, its focus is on producing new green buildings. Since the US already has a large base of buildings, it focuses substantially on retrofitting for reducing energy use.

The two countries have still found common ground. "Building science as a research topic does not exist in India," says Satish Kumar, energy efficiency ambassador of Schneider Electric, a partner of the project from India. The Indo-US project would aim to fill this vacuum, as well as creating policy imperatives and best practices. "Certification in India does not look at operational efficiency," says Girish Ghatikar, Rish Ghatikar, Project Director, the U.S. India Center for Building Energy R&D (CBERD). Improving this operational efficiency is one of the goals of the project.

In all projects, it is a case of mutual benefit. "This is not a technology transfer project," says Rajan Rawal, assistant professor at the CEPT University in Ahmedabad, which leads the green building project from India, "India has to offer something back to the US as well." In green buildings, much of the knowledge from India could be on methods of passive cooling, by not using airconditioning, as buildings in the US always use air-conditioning for cooling.

In solar energy, this could be domestic expertise in software technologies; modern solar energy systems use a high amount of software. In any case, if the project expands as it has in recent times, the energy sector of both countries could see some breakthrough in the next few years.

Source: The Economic Times, July 25, 2013

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