Engineers and Environment

Invisible rural engineer

Posted by Susan Sharma on July 12, 2006

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Chewang Norphel, 67, is a soft-spoken innovator from Ladakh. For over 15 years, Norphel, a civil engineer by training, has been building ‘artificial glaciers’ to make life a little easier for the hard-working but poverty-stricken farmers of Ladakh. Farmers in his village call him a messiah. Ex-President K R Narayanan called him an “invisible rural engineer”. But Norphel is better known as Ladakh’s ‘glacier man’ who can generate water and vegetation in the barren landscape of Ladakh.

For his work he was awarded the Far Eastern Economic Review’s 1999 Gold Asian Innovation Award.

Norphel comes from the small village of Skarra on the outskirts of Leh, the capital of Ladakh. He always wanted to do something to help the people of the region who suffer the harsh conditions of this remote, inhospitable high-altitude desert in the Himalayas, where temperatures can drop to below -30°C. Ladakh experiences long, severe winters and brief summers. And to top it all, water is in short supply. Ladakh is in the rain-shadow area of the Himalayas, where the annual average rainfall seldom exceeds 50 mm. The only water source is glacier water coming down the mountains. When glaciers melt in summer, they release water that is used by the people of Ladakh to irrigate their crops.

 “I realised that all the problems of the region were related to water, which was scarce in most areas,” says Norphel. This water shortage is more acutely felt during the summer months, between March/April and June. These months are critical for Ladakh’s farmers. Any delay in sowing the crop rules out an October harvest, as the crop does not then mature in time to beat the harsh winter. Only single crops like wheat, barley and peas are grown here.

The glaciers begin melting only after July. And so the short sowing season sometimes begins and ends before the bulk of water is made available through the melting of natural glaciers. Sometimes there’s no water to irrigate even a few crops. Norphel’s watershed intervention -- the ‘artificial glacier’ -- came from the simple observation that “while there was such a shortage of water at the start of the cropping season, a lot of water was being wasted during winter”.

He noticed that in winter water taps were left open to stop the water from freezing in the pipes. The water flowed into the drains surrounding the taps and froze. “And it is then that it occurred to me: why not try and make artificial glaciers in the vicinity of the village so that local farmers get a real headstart when they need it most,” says Norphel.

Norphel used to work with the Jammu and Kashmir rural development department making zings (small tanks fed by run-off from melting glaciers). A year after he retired from government service, in 1996, he joined as project manager for watershed development for the Leh Nutrition Project, a local civil society organisation. This gave him the opportunity to try out his ‘artificial glacier’ idea to trap and freeze water for future use. Norphel’s technique uses a network of pipes to capture and channel precious snowmelt that would otherwise be wasted. No crops are grown during Ladakh’s severe winters; the little water there is in the mountain streams generally goes waste.

Using some local ingenuity, Norphel built his ‘artificial glacier’ from stone embankments and a few hundred metres of iron pipe. First, water from an existing stream was diverted through iron pipes to a shady area of the valley. From there, the water was made to flow out onto a sloping hill at regular intervals along the mountain slope. Small stone embankments impede the flow of water, creating shallow pools. During the winter, as temperatures drop steadily, the water in these small pools freezes. Once this cycle has been repeated over many weeks, a thick sheet of ice forms, resembling a long, thin glacier. Norphel managed to freeze water in pipes as well. “I noticed in Leh that water sometimes did not freeze in the channels but did so in the thin iron pipes. As the pipes are made of metal and are very thin, they lose heat quite rapidly,” he explains.

There are several advantages of an artificial glacier over a natural one. To start with, it’s closer to the village and at a comparatively lower altitude. Natural glaciers, on the other hand, are located way up in the mountains and they melt slowly in summer, releasing water to the villages quite late. Early water release from an artificial glacier comes as a bonus for farmers. It enables them to get water a whole month before the snow starts melting on the mountain tops. This is particularly useful to start sowing, as the sowing season ends before water from natural glaciers begins to flow down the mountain.

The largest artificial glacier Norphel has built so far is near the village of Phuktsey. About 1,000 feet (300 metres) long, 150 feet (45 metres) wide, and four feet (1 metre) deep, it supplies irrigation water to the entire village of around 700 people. Norphel says the glacier was built at a cost of about Rs 90,000, which is about a tenth of what it would have cost to build a reservoir with similar storage capacity.

This technology has become immensely popular with the people of Ladakh, not only because it is effective but also because it is simple and affordable and makes use of local resources and skills. And there’s minimal maintenance required. “The villagers can understand this,” Norphel says. “This is optimum utilisation of water by using the simplest technique, at a low cost. It also helps recharge groundwater and nearby springs.”

As more and more glaciers are being constructed all over Ladakh, more and more barren land is coming under cultivation, providing better opportunities to poor and marginalised communities in the region. Norphel hopes that solving Ladakh’s water problems will help slow down the migration of young people to the plains. Improving the economic viability of farms, he says, will sustain village communities and also preserve the ancient Buddhist heritage of his people.

Norphel’s efforts have been tracked in a film by docu-filmmaker Fayaz Rizvi, titled A Degree of Concern, which was recently screened on the National Geographic Channel.

Engineers and Environment

Alternate fuel-Ethanol 101

Posted by Susan Sharma on June 15, 2006

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Ethanol is a renewable fuel distilled mainly from corn. In the near future, ethanol may also be produced using agricultural and wood waste, of which there is an abundant supply for both in agricultural states and counties throughout the U.S. and beyond.

Because of its comparatively high oxygen content, ethanol is cleaner burning than regular unleaded gasoline and can be blended to 10 percent without having to modify standard engines. A 10 percent blend also substantially reduces carbon monoxide, hydrocarbon, benzene and other exhaust emissions as well as related greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.

Before we can celebrate ethanol as a viable alternative to petroleum, one simple fact must be considered: producing ethanol requires more fossil fuel energy than the petroleum it would replace. This result was confirmed researchers at Cornell University and the University of California. The reason? It takes a lot of energy to grow crops and transform them into ethanol.

Regardless, ethanol has a lot of political support, and despite building evidence to the contrary, the U.S. Department of Agriculture believes that ethanol delivers more energy than is consumed in making it.

Sources: American Coalition for Ethanol, Growing Expectations, and Cornell University News Service.

Engineers and Environment

Automated vehicular pollution detection system(Pollution Buster)

Posted by Susan Sharma on June 12, 2006

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Four students from Dr.B.V Raju Institute of Technology, Narsapur, Medak District, Andhra Pradesh have designed a "Pollution Buster".

The device includes a user module comprising a circuit which has a carbon monoxide sensor, to monitor the vehicle's emission. The receiver module placed at strategic traffic points transmits the registration number of the polluter vehicle to the pollution control authorities. The team says the concept provides a three day grace period to the motorist to correct pollution levels, before he is reported automatically.

The concept is real time and hence expected to be more effective in checking pollution. The foursome is among the four teams selected from India by Microsoft Sudent challengE 2006.

(Report courtesy Education Times June 12, 2006)

Engineers and Environment

Grey water recycling in Mathematical Institute

Posted by Susan Sharma on June 03, 2006

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The Chennai Mathematical Institute, spread across five acres in Siruseri, proposes to implement a grey water recycling system in its premises.

The project, in its first phase, would be designed to treat about 2,000 litres of used water. Grey water refers to waste water produced after cleaning, washing and bathing. The treated water could be used for gardening or ground water recharge.

Grey water is easier to treat than black water or water from toilets. This is because black water is loaded with pathogens that are difficult to get rid of through a simple treatment system. Sultan Ahmed Ismail, Managing Director of Ecoscience Research Foundation, who designed the project for the Chennai Mathematical Institute, said that root zone treatment would be used to treat the grey water.

The principle behind the system is quite simple. Grey water is allowed to flow through a horizontal filter that is three metres long, two metres wide and 30 centrimetres deep. The water is passed through a filter of pebbles and gravel. The water also passes through a reed bed, which is slightly sloped so that the water flows easily.

Root zone treatment The reed bed is crucial to the water treatment. The best plants to use for the reed bed include Canna (kal vaazhai), Banana and Colocasia (a yam). The plants keep the soil partially aerobic by pumping atmospheric oxygen to the roots, where some micro organisms live. These bacteria help in the break down on any suspended solids in the grey water.

Once the first phase of the project is fully operational, Mr. Ismail also proposes to treat black water through a more elaborate technology. A composting shed for solid waste management is also being planned.

Chennai Mathematical Institute is an autonomous institution for teaching and research in Mathematical Sciences. It is supported by the Department of Atomic Energy.

SOURCE : The Hindu, Monday, May 22, 2006

Engineers and Environment

" Fledge" The GREEN CAR

Posted by Susan Sharma on June 01, 2006

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Seven mechanical engineering students of the Delhi College of Engineering (DCE) put together the prototype of the country's first gasoline-electric hybrid car. Named "The Fledge".  The DCE hybrid car participated in the annual green car festival organised by the North-East Sustainable Energy Association of the United States in May 2006.

The model was worked on by a team of sixth semester students -- Abhinav Bhatia, Abhinav Duggal, Abhishek Agarwal, Anubhav Jain, Ashish Dudani, Nitesh Gupta and Siddharth Arora.

"Necessity is the mother of all inventions and the mounting burden of petroleum prices on the common man had kindled a spark in the DCE students to unearth this new technology with a revolutionary drive train," said Abhishek Agarwal, the leader of the seven-member team.

 A 200-Ah lead acid battery with a 1.3 litre fuel tank will provide the energy storage system. Power transmission in the car occurs on the engine as well as the motor mode providing the user with the option of switching to either mode at any point of their journey. A powerful 18 BHP, 346 cc engine along with a 3.5HP, 3000 rpm permanent magnet DC motor serves the very purpose.

Made with the support of the Central Department of Science and Technology and Mahindra and Mahindra, `The Fledge' a one person hybrid vehicle competed with 55 other participants at the "TourDeSol" competition. With a goal of reducing oil use and climate change emissions, the 2006 Tour de Sol, America’s #1 green car show and competition driving toward zero carbon emissions, showcased a variety of cutting-edge technologies that address the energy and climate change crises, offering both short-term and long-term solutions including some that are available on the market today.

"The current hybrids available in this world are very expensive as compared to normal cars, so we have tried to reduce the cost and we have tried to think of simple systems by not using the complicated systems," says Anubhav Jain, adding, " We are making a vehicle for the common person in India who commutes to his office, which is in the range of about 30 kilometers. So ... he has the option [with a vehicle like ours] for electric mode, which has more range." He says it would cost about $10,000 to go into production with Fledge.

The top honors in the competition went to West Philadelphia High School and St. Mark’s School, Southborough, MA. However, the entry from India was commented upon as

"This vehicle was designed to address the transportation needs of millions of people in India that presently use highly polluting motorcycles by presenting them with a practical, very efficient hybrid option." says the TordeSol communication.

 

Engineers and Environment

Assam first Indian State to use Bamboo-generated power

Posted by Susan Sharma on May 28, 2006

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Bamboo flowering and eventual death of the species in the seasons  make available large scale bamboo residues. This has to be utilized continuously and on large scale so that the residues are consumed quickly after generation and there will be no storing leading to other menaces like rat infestation.

 National Mission on Bamboo Applications (NMBA) along with IISc(Indian Institute of Science), Bangalore addressed  the issue of value addition of these residues. Their findings,

  • Gasification of bamboo/ bamboo waste for electricity/ thermal applications produced clean, cheap and renewable source of energy.
  • The energy Stabilised to 1 Mwe level for off-grid, remote area, captive – & flowering areas.
  • 15% charcoal was generated as by-product to meet rural fuel needs.
  •  Also, Quality, species, maturity of bamboo was not an issue. 

The two pilot projects, set up at an estimated cost of Rs.100 million, were designed and developed by scientists at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Both the plants are nearing completion at two paper mills in Jagiroad and Silchar towns in Assam.

Engineers and Environment

Soil Biotechnology

Posted by Susan Sharma on May 26, 2006

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A new method called Soil Biotechnolgy(SBT), developed by IIT, Mumbai, is being used for sewage treatment at Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi.

All the plastic and solid waste is removed from the sewage as it passes throgh a mesh on the top of a tank. "The tank has a bio-reactor containing microbes and natural additives that purify the water by removing odour, colour and bacteria. Above this tank, there is an evergreen garden with some native species of plants that serve as biological indicators. The water flows into a collection tank where it is pumped for irrigation." Said Rajesh Jain managing director of Enhanced WAPP Systems (India) Private Limited, the company that set up and is at present maintaining the plant for DTTDC.

The entire purification process takes place underfround and it removes 99% of the bacteria in the sewage, he added.

The technology is also being used in Taj Hotel, Gwalior, ITC Mughal Sheraton, Agra and Vazir Sultan Tobacco Industries in Hyderabad.

"Another advantage is that the plant uses very little electricity, except when water has to be pumped for drip irrigation or sprinkling," said Ashok Khurana, the superintending engineer of the plant.

 

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