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Sciences

May 20, 2003
Two breakthroughs

Two potentially revolutionary breakthroughs by Indians in just about a week is a moment for celebration.

The issue of polluting plastics has triggered worldwide research to find a solution. The problem is assuming such vast proportions that Governments are reacting in the only way they know-- pass laws like King Canute: banning , restricting , disciplining, ordering. Enthusiasts have suggested solutions like recycling them into road making, extracting liquid fuel from them and turning them into solid fuel pellets. The size of the problem can be visualised from this one stat.: the United States spends more on trash bags than 90 other countries spend on *everything*.

So far, all solution proffered have addressed only film plastics. There has been no solution yet to ‘disappear’ styrofoam or polystyrene. It’s them, the light coffee cups and the squishy sculpted packing that wraps cameras and stereos. They are immortal.

On May 11, Reshma Patil reported in the New Indian Express, that scientists at the National Chemical Laboratory, Pune may have stumbled on to a wide spectrum solution to degrade all plastics quickly. In brief, they suggest building in sugar into the plastics that will make them edible to soil animals. “...soil bacteria simply adore sucrose, glucose, and lactose from the sugar family,” says Patil. “The polymer chain is first made chemically functional for sweet bonding with sugar. Then sugar molecules --less than 3%, mostly just 1%-- are chemically and randomly hooked to this functional polymer chain. They can’t fall off. When greedy soil bacteria munch on the sugary delicacy, they break down the polymer chain and hasten bio-degradation.”

Neat isn’t it? The world thinks so. The report quotes Dr A J Verma, a senior scientist at NCL as saying, “ I have been answering calls from all over Europe and America. We will scale up the project and cover it with as many patents as possible.”

The second breakthrough --for most of us, ordinary mortals-- is more to gawk at than understand. PTI reported on May 18, that Dr.Balakumar Balachandran at the University of Maryland, USA has made a breakthrough invention described as the “physical science invention of the year by the University”.

Simplistically put, it is is to with micronised sensors that can be incorporated into fibre optics. Sitting in line, these sensors can report information that will enable fine and dynamic monitoring and control of vibrations, noise, health, equipment behaviour, metal fatigue in ships and aircrafts etc. It has one classic ingredient of a true brakthrough: others foresee applications that the inventor scarcely suspected. Dr. Balachandran has formed a company, Odexia that will commercialise these applications.

From GoodNewsIndia’s point of view these developments are a confirmation of its deep and abiding conviction: India will gain her identity due to the efforts of her little known sons. Balakumar for instance was raised in Neyveli, an industrial township in Tamil Nadu, graduated from IIT, Chennai, went to the US in 1985, did his Masters, gained his PhD and is today a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

Increasingly in India these days, this is a recurring profile and pattern.

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