Wednesday, March 9, 2011

An Indian invents a patented solution to plastic pollution

Concerned about a world strangled by plastic, Dr. R. Vasudevan, tells how he adds value to the waste by using it in laying all -weather roads

After the city's rain-fed potholes, the transition to smooth roads within the campus of the Thiagarajar College of Engineering (TCE) is more than a treat. The man behind the tar-topped tracks, is known as Madurai's ‘Plastic Road Man'.

Always sporting a striking namam on his forehead, he is as much at ease when he experiments with chemicals in the science lab, holding beakers over flames as under a peepul tree when he talks with a bunch of students at lunch break, teaching them shlokas from the Bhagavad Gita.

He could easily be mistaken for a Sanskrit pundit if you heard him quote the holy text as a solution to any problem in the world. Mesmerized students remain tuned in to his discourse. Ever since he joined TCE in 1975, he has carried the Gita as a manual for leading life and voluntarily conducted classes uninterrupted for 36 years.

But Dr. R. Vasudevan, Dean and Head of the Chemistry Department, is better known as a man with a mission, and . “Clean India” is his campaign. The low -profile professor says, “I want to change the general garbage culture of the people.”

After a decade's hard work and persistent efforts, his simple invention of a technology to use -- plastic waste to lay roads, patented by TCE, finally got a shot in the arm last month with the Centre approving its wider application.

The day we met Dr. Vasudevan, the skies burst open. Yet, students assembled in his office room for the ‘Gita class'. And it turned out to be a lucky hour. The professor, at his table cluttered with samples of bitumen blocks, was waving a special gazette notification of the Ministry of Environment & Forests dated 4th February, 2011, directing all municipal authorities across the country to “encourage use of plastic waste by adopting suitable technology such as in road construction...”

Dr. Vasudevan was elated. “This is the first response of its kind to waste management.,”

It was in 2002 that Dr. Vasudevan laid the first plastic tar road within the TCE campus. It remains intact. His interest in the subject began when he heard a doctor on a TV programme mistakenly sayingthat plastic “dissolved” in water bodies and caused pollution. “It set me thinking … after all, plastic's raw material is petroleum only. I immediately came to my lab and started mixing some waste plastic in heated bitumen (tar).” And there and then was born a new idea.

When then President Dr. A.P.J. Kalam visited TCE in 2001, the professor presented his project on the good bonding and binding factor of plastic and its potential use as a coating over pebbles for laying roads. He recalls with a gentle smile, “he told me, one day your test will become the convention. Don't worry if people don't approve or get convinced. You just do your work at your place. As a sample, lay a plastic road within your campus first. Once the results are there to see, people will come automatically.”

Dr. Kalam's words proved prophetic. With full support from the college correspondent Mr. Karumuttu T. Kannan, Dr. Vasudevan laid the first 60-foot -long plastic road within the campus. “Application of knowledge is very important,” he says. “We learn and know so many things but on most occasions fail to see how and where our knowledge could be implemented. That is wisdom.”

Getting his technology patented was the next hurdle. After four years and numerous visits to the Chennai office, the technology was registered in 2006. “An officer advised me that I should not apply for the product's patent because it is not new, the road is already there. Instead, I should patent the process,” he says. “God has always sent the right people to me at the right time.”

Though plastic waste has been a nagging problem for civic authorities, with thousands of tonnes of garbage generated every day, it took years of discussion for Dr. Vasudevan to be acknowledged by organizations like the Central Pollution Control Board, National Rural Roads Development Agency, Central Road Research Institute, Indian Centre for Plastic Environment and the National Highways Authority of India. In every forum, he painstakingly explained and demonstrated the benefits of road laying using a polymer-aggregate-bitumen mix.

Even as his technology was being debated in the government, Dr. Vasudevan started receiving offers from private companies both within and outside the country to sell the patent. “But I think it my duty to serve my country first and therefore, I gave it free to the Indian Government.” What he laments is the slow progress, “the plastic binding with bitumen is an ideal option for roads that bear the brunt of torrential rains.” Also, he underlines, if citizens treat their waste properly by segregating and collecting the plastic, the country will soon be free of plastic litter and boast safer and better roads.

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