An Industrial Microbiologist Who Adds Biofuel to the Fire

"The minute you compromise, you’re neither here nor there. I’m never a supporter of creches at the workplace. Your work will be compromised."

Annamma Anil. Credit: The Life of Science

Annamma Anil. Credit: The Life of Science

The Life of Science – Importing fuel is expensive. To ease the load on the economy and on the environment, the Government of India has placed a mandate: it’s compulsory that 5% of diesel and petrol be blended with ethanol biofuel. However, we are far from this goal. Only a few states have been able to reach even 3% in petrol, whereas there is almost no biofuel blending in diesel.

However, for the first time, India will have a realistic shot at achieving the 5% target in the near future. This change in fortune came on April 22, 2016, with the opening of a one-of-its-kind ethanol plant in the town of Kashipur, Uttarakhand. The plant can treat 10 tonnes of agricultural waste per day and convert it to ethanol. It does this through a highly efficient process that was conceptualised completely indigenously.

K. VijayRaghavan, secretary of the Department of Biotechnology, called the pilot plant “an example of how we can work on the challenges the world faces, define them in Indian labs and then strive to solve them for the benefit of the world community in general and India in particular.”

The plant in Kashipur is the brainchild of scientists from the Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai, headed by Arvind Lali and his team, where industrial microbiologist Annamma Anil is a crucial member. “Both me and Professor Lali have put in an equal share of ideas into this plant,” said Anil, as she ushered me into her brightly lit cabin that afternoon at the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT) campus in Matunga.

Anil exuded quiet pride as she narrated to me the significance of this plant – not just to the country, as I found out in the course of our talk, but also to herself on an unexpectedly personal level.

Exactly what we need

The Kashipur plant is revolutionary on many fronts. It will reduce the burden of mammoth quantities of agricultural waste that are generated in the country (most of this is ultimately burnt by farmers who don’t know what else to do with it). It will increase ethanol output, giving India a cleaner energy alternative, consequently reducing the amount of fuel that needs to be imported. The unique technology developed by Anil and the rest of the team at ICT may very well make India a global force in the area of renewable energy.

Anil was asked to take on the project in 2009. “We have changed a lot of concepts from what is used in rest of world and have made the process much more cost effective.” The processes have been patented in fifteen to twenty  countries, she added, explaining why I wouldn’t find their publications online (the process details are protected).

2G ethanol plants around the world do not  have a great track record. Spanish bioenergy company Abengoa gave 2G ethanol a try but they filed for bankruptcy in the US earlier this year. Nevertheless, ICT’s new plant looks set to change the trend.

How? “Enzymes don’t need kachra (garbage) around it. You give them clean substrate, they will work fine. You give it lot of trash to handle, you get a lot of problems,” says Anil.

Thanks to a pretreatment step that is not typical in other plants, the unwanted components of the agricultural waste is ‘cleaned’. This makes a big difference. “Usually, the whole process takes days but we use sugars (the agricultural waste) that are clean so the process completes in less than a day.”

The other distinct feature of the Kashipur plant is its ability to reuse the same amount of enzyme multiple times. In the plant, thin filters capture the expensive enzymes for subsequent reuse while the sugars are allowed to flow through. Anil was directly involved in the development and implementation of this feature. “If others use it for one run, we will target to use them for 100 recycled runs or 50 recycled runs. This reduces their cost by up to ten times.”

Staying close to home

Anil has spent almost her whole life in Mumbai. While studying for a master’s degree in life sciences, she decided that industrial microbiology was what she wanted to pursue. “Due to personal reasons and choice, moving out of Mumbai was never on my mind.” Luckily for her, one of the best places to study this field, ICT, was in the same city. She applied to do her PhD there as soon as she finished her MSc but things did not work out.

“If you do not come from engineering faculty or a pharmacy faculty, admissions here are not very easy,” she says. Anil then opted for her back-up plan, to do a PG diploma course in bioinformatics in Pune.

At that point, she had just  been married. Her decision to go to Pune leaving her family behind made some things clear at the outset, she said. “It showed that whatever come, I’m going my way – nobody will be the limiting factor. And my family or my husband’s family never stopped me.”

The following year in Pune proved crucial to shaping Anil’s ambitions. After not being able to bag a place at ICT, she entered the new course, somewhat bruised but with new vigour. “Until then, I was really unclear about what I wanted, but while in Pune I applied for all the national exams – GATE, CSIR fellowship, DBT JRF fellowship, ICMR… – whatever came our way.”

Coming back stronger

When Anil returned from Pune, she had with her a host of options: a CSIR fellowship, a DBT Junior Research Fellowship, and an ICMR Junior Research Fellowship. Once more, she knocked on ICT’s doors. “This time I had brought with myself a package. I could say ‘now I have funding, so give me what I want.’” And they did.

Anil may have come a long way since then, but she is very candid about the difficulties that persist. “Industrial microbiology is a highly male dominated field. Also, the skill sets you require here make it difficult for someone coming from a microbiology background.” Biochemical engineering involves a lot of formulae and engineering principles so it took years for Anil to get a hold on it. “Ten years after my PhD, I’m still on this journey!”

There are days, admits Anil, when you sit down and cry. “But at the end of the day I realise: There are no shortcuts to something, you just have to work.”

Her humility becomes apparent when she talks about instances where her students have helped. “When I started with my assistant professor role, I had a couple of students who were really my pillars. When I’m wrong, they come and tell me ‘Ma’am i think, this is the way to do it.’ This gives me insight. ‘OK, this is something I needed to learn.’ Then you go back and refer.”

Notions of hierarchy are far from Anil’s mind. “People who believe in hierarchy destroy themselves,” she says emphatically. “I’ve always thought that when somebody questions you, you need to ask yourself whether you are wrong. I am an absolute fighter-cock. But convince me that I’m wrong, and I’m open to discussion, open to transformation.”

Stress has affected her life

However, the cycles of questioning, debating and learning can take a toll. And Anil, ever so frank, doesn’t make the mistake of romanticising this process. “Sometimes I wonder – is it all worth it? Come on, let me quit. And then I immediately fill in some application somewhere for a teaching post. When I go home and talk about this with my husband he asks me if I’m sure about this. After two days, I’m back.”

Such insecurities are higher for women because there is a limit to how far they can go, says Anil. “Staying away for months together from home, that’s the maximum that someone with a baby can do.” Anil recalls a painful time while she was pregnant with her second child. “I was under so much stress that my gynaecologist used to ask me if I will be able to complete the term.” Turned out, the doctor was right to wonder.

She delivered her baby in seven months. “When the baby was two months old, she still weighed only a kilo. My workload was so much and I had to be in office but the doctor asked me to stay put until she reached two kilos. The day my baby reached that mark, I was back at my desk.” There may have been underpinnings of pain in her tone but Anil’s words are pragmatic: “The thing is, at work, if you are not at the right place at the right time, you will stagnate.”

Women are more likely to miss out, Anil has observed. “Suppose a new company is coming into the institute for a consultation. Somehow they find male counterparts because there is more camaraderie.” She says that she and her female colleagues are lucky to have a godfather-figure in Professor Lali. “He knows our strengths and he targets projects to us accordingly. If I was alone to find my way it would have been more difficult because ideas are not accepted unless they are mainstream.”

Anil’s advice to women who do not have childcare support at home is: move away from the race for some time. “The minute you compromise, you’re neither here nor there. I’m never a supporter of creches at the workplace. Your work will be compromised. This is my personal opinion.”

Adversity brings out the best in students

Growing up, Anil’s family faced a lot of financial difficulties. “My father was in and out of jobs. We used to take tuitions at home to manage.” This changed when she got married, but her value for hard work has clearly stayed with her through the years.

So much so that, at times, she is disheartened by the superficiality of the younger generation of students. “They are growing in a very protected environment and therefore when they come into the real world, they don’t know how to make their own decisions. They have more exposure, more brains, but they never think of grassroots problems.”

On the other hand, Anil has noticed that students coming from villages or from financially backward families are the best performers. Perhaps because of her own history, Anil feels a kinship with these kind of learners.

So what next for an industrial microbiologist who has already launched a revolutionary ethanol plant just a decade into her academic career? “I can’t see myself in academia in the far future. The goal I set for myself is to have this plant running. I have three other pilot projects lined up for the year. So by the end of the year I should have at least two running successfully. [After that], I see myself moving on to different realms – maybe to market these technologies or to a more administrative job.”

Ultimately, however, Anil sees herself in the social sphere. “I want to run a community school or an orphanage. Or maybe a setup for communicating science. I have not thought about it so much but I don’t want to be in this race for awards and recognition. I want to leave at a good time, when I’m successful.”

This piece was originally published by The Life of Science. The Wire is happy to support this project by Aashima Dogra and Nandita Jayaraj, who are traveling across India to meet some fantastic women scientists.

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