How often do we realize we are on a planet?

How often do we realize we are on a planet?


I recently watched BBC Earth’s Blue Planet documentary series. It made me realize so strongly that we are on a planet after all! It also made me think what we, human beings, are doing on the planet. Are we contributing to keeping its beauty alive or are we just protecting what is left? Are we as a species really using the intelligence we were born with?

Photo by Johny vino on Unsplash

Think about it. Our planet is so beautiful in so many ways – its waters harbor a totally different world than what we have on the land. And the land, with whatever natural patches are left, is equally beautiful. The world beneath is full of life and depicts colors, growth, innovation, survival instincts, different behaviors, etc. How are we, human beings, trying to retain the beauty of this planet we were gifted with? It may sound harsh but from what I have observed, I think we are too busy either consuming it, littering it, or, thanks to a few, preserving what we have been left with.

We must understand that we cannot regenerate the beauty that we originally have or had, on land and underneath. For example, we can only grow trees but we cannot grow mountains, we cannot create new plant species which are good for the planet, in several ways we cannot do what nature can. We can only protect what is left. None of our actions are ever going to make this planet remain as beautiful as we have it today, as the rate of destruction is far greater than the rate of protection.

We are spread all over the land available to us on this planet and yet we have managed to destroy it, unlike our neighbors under the sea who are not only fighting the change of times (forced upon them by human actions) but are also finding ways to innovate to keep their world intact, and it’s nature’s act of balancing. We, on the other hand, are not only largely unaware of how we need to act to keep our planet green and beautiful (I say this largely because of the apathetic attitude of most of us when it comes to environmental issues), but also do not have a plan as a species how to stop generating waste and e-waste, cutting trees, destroying forests, filling wastelands, killing wildlife, wasting natural resources, and finding comfort in ignorance.

The world around me seems too busy with following innumerable purposes except for caring for the planet we are on!

In India when I visit old monuments and sites I realize that our previous generations were very conscious of nature – they were conscious of maintaining hygiene, they had planned cities that took take care of waste, drainage, and severe weather conditions, and they worshipped natural resources and used them with care. They gave a lot of value to planting trees and maintaining the ecological balance. I am sure earlier civilizations across the world would have had a similar philosophy. And with the evolution of human beings, and of technologies, we now have several means of living a more comfortable, sheltered, life with no real requirement of protecting our planet till there is nothing left to consume, or till the time it really hits us with a devastating realization that it’s too late to salvage the planet.

It reminds me of an advertisement on a radio channel in India some time ago. It was something like this – a fire breaks out in a building and people panic. They get desperate to extinguish it but since the city has run dry and there is no water available in large quantity, they start thinking about alternatives – coconut water? bottled water? What can douse a fire except for water? And that’s the message – Save water for a safe future. And that’s so true in case of most of our natural resources.

The recent water crisis in Chennai in India is a sign of a strugglesome future that’s not very far for all of us. It’s actually late but we can still start working as a community across the world, go beyond the boundaries we have marked ourselves in, and change our acts for the greater good, else we are all in our own small and big ways paving a path for our collective suffering, and probably destruction.

Indian startup turns crop residue to usable pulp, assures farmers’ benefit

Indian startup turns crop residue to usable pulp, assures farmers’ benefit


Three graduates from the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, Ankur Kumar, Kanika Prajatat and Pracheer Dutta have developed a machine that can convert the hardy straw of paddy into a fibrous raw material that can be used by the pulp molding factories to prepare disposable cutlery.

In India despite a Supreme Court order, and a government scheme that offers stubble management machines at subsidized rates, farmers continue to burn crop residue after harvest, as they find it cheaper than clearing the crop residue manually or by using machines. The practice is rampant across rice-growing belts as paddy straw is neither a suitable fuel nor can be used as cattle feed. The situation is worse in Punjab and Haryana as the smoke resulting from burning the residue chokes Delhi and envelops the entire northern India with dense toxic smog for weeks.

Paddy straw is rich in silica, which slows down its rate of degradation and hence farmers choose to burn it post harvest to make the land reusable faster. The new machine, created by the trio as the first product of their startup Kriya Lab, uses an environment-friendly chemical that can strip the straw of silica, making it supple and usable. The pulp can be used as raw material for the pulp and paper industry. 

For now the machine can convert one ton of paddy straw into 500 kilograms of pulp, which can then be sold at Rs. 45 per kilogram. It holds promise for those who want to start commercially viable ventures as there is a growing demand for ecofriendly cutlery and packaging materials, particularly the ones made from biomass waste. Read more

Scientists convert hazardous medical waste to useful material

Scientists convert hazardous medical waste to useful material


A team of scientists at the National Chemical Laboratory, Pune, and the Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai, has developed a non-toxic technique to recycle plaster of Paris (PoP) waste from hospitals and convert it into useful materials such as ammonium sulphate and calcium bicarbonate.

In hospitals and other medical centers PoP is mainly used for setting broken or fractured bones or for making casts in dentistry. It is a hazardous waste, loaded with bacteria, and affects not only the environment, but also people who collect, segregate, and dispose it.

The new technique treats PoP waste with ammonium bicarbonate solution with a concentration of 20 percent. The solution disintegrates the waste into high value and non-toxic chemicals, ammonium sulphate and calcium bicarbonate in the form of sludge in 24-36 hours at room temperature.

The resultant material ammonium sulphate can be utilized as nitrogen fertilizer, fire-extinguishing powder, and in pharmaceutical, textile, and wood pulp industries, while calcium carbonate can be easily used in steel manufacturing.

The new technique can also be used to disintegrate PoP waste from idols immersed in water bodies.

The study results have been published in the International Journal of Environmental Science and TechnologyRead the full report by Vaishali Lavekar.

IIT-Roorkee Scientists Create Solar Cells From Fruits

IIT-Roorkee Scientists Create Solar Cells From Fruits


Scientists at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Roorkee have fabricated low-cost thin film solar cells by extracting the plant pigments from plums, black currants, and berries.

The team found that the plant pigments are good at absorbing sunlight. According to a study, published in the Journal of Photovoltaics, plant pigments are naturally occurring biodegradable and nontoxic molecules that are extracted using techniques that involve negligible cost to the environment and therefore can provide eco-friendly alternatives to synthetic dyes that are used for thin film solar cells production.

The researchers at IIT-Roorkee extracted the plant pigments using ethanol to create the thin film solar cells. And while the organic thin film solar cells are not yet as efficient as conventional silicon-based solar cells, the team is investigating ways to make them more efficient and cost-effective. Read the full report by Lorraine Chow.

Charkha Gets Innovative Twist to Produce Hand Spun Colored Yarn

Charkha Gets Innovative Twist to Produce Hand Spun Colored Yarn


The Colored Yarn prototype
The Colored Yarn prototype

In an attempt to give an innovative twist to the age-old spinning wheel (charkha), students at the MIT Media Lab India Design Innovation Workshop have created a prototype that can color the yarn on the fly!

The project, Colored Yarn, has been created to provide technology advantage to the weaver community of India.

The Spinning Wheel

Charkha is one of the oldest known forms of the spinning wheel. It works with a drive wheel being turned by hand, while the yarn is spun off the tip of the spindle. It is a small, portable, hand-cranked wheel that is ideal for spinning cotton and other fine fibers. Mostly, the charkha is used for spinning cotton and the hand spun cloth is called Khadi in the Indian peninsula.

According to the Handloom Census of India 2009-10, India has about 29 lakh handloom workforce working on 23.77 lakh looms across household and non-household handloom units. About seven percent of the 20.91 lakh working household looms continue to use the hand spun yarn, supporting the Khadi programme. The most extensive use has been observed in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka where 30.1 percent and 24.4 percent looms operate with hand spun yarn, respectively.

It is for the community of weavers who provide hand spun yarn for the looms that the young innovators wanted to change the traditional way the charkha works.

The Colored Yarn

Team 2GB students Monica and Lavanya with Mentor Artem Dementyev
Team 2GB students Monica and Lavanya with Mentor Artem Dementyev

Attendra Sharma (20) of the Institute of Hotel Management, Gandhinagar along with Monica J. (21) of PESIT University, Bangalore, and Lavanya Gupta (20) of Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology, Gandhinagar, have developed an innovative prototype of the charkha that allows for the yarn to be colored on the fly.

The trio developed the project as part of the ‘Sensors Across Scale’ track at the 2015 MIT Media Lab India Design Innovation Workshop that was held in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, in January. While the track focused on building new sensor systems working across scales, it also encouraged innovations that “affect human relationships and social problems”.

The 2GB team (two girls and a boy), as they called it, focused on innovating with the spinning wheel not with the sensors but by using basic components such as the box charkha, a pulley, a coloring unit, and a spool.

The team used a briefcase charkha that weighs just about 1.4 kilograms. Here’s how it works:

  • A tightly rolled tube of cotton, called pooni, is one of the ways to fine and even spinning. Weavers can make poonis from pre-carded cotton by laying a thin layer of cotton on a flat surface and rolling it around a thin stick and compressing it with hands.
  • For proper tension, the spindle support post must be positioned far enough so that the spindle drive cord holds it vertical. Also, the post base should be angled so that, when the spindle is spinning freely, its pulley rotates midway between the post arms, not touching either one.
  • For the first time, a leader is added to each spindle to help start the spinning process. The drive wheels turn together smoothly and the tension of the thread gets adjusted by moving the small wheel.
  • A spinner begins on this apparatus by drawing out the yarn to arm’s length with one hand while turning the big wheel clockwise with the other hand. The trick is to coordinate the speed of the draw with the speed of wheel turning, so that the yarn holds together but not too much twist travels up into the cotton in one’s hand. (Source: http://www.markshep.com/peace/Charkha.html.)

The 2GB team introduced a coloring unit as an attachment to the briefcase charkha. As a spinner spins, the plain thread passes through the unit where color is dropped on the thread through a funnel, producing a clean, dry, dyed hand spun yarn.

“This is a new and unique use of technology on a traditional product. The process of spinning the yarn and then dyeing it in a color of choice is a five-day process. Our prototype not only allows the weavers to color the yarn within a few seconds, but also provides them the freedom to experiment with different colors of their choice for the hand spun fabric, without much dependency on the dyeing process. By making minimal changes in the charkha, we have tried to retain the authenticity of the product and yet modernize it enough to save the art,” said Lavanya and Attendra who conceptualized and engineered the prototype.

The team plans to improve upon the design and function of the coloring unit to create a final product.

To know more about the Colored Yarn prototype, write to lavanya181194@gmail.com or attendra.ihma@gmail.com.

(This article is part of a series on innovations presented at the 2015 MIT Media Lab India Design Innovation Workshop.)