Mr Vidyut Mohan, co-founder of Takachar, was named 2020 “Young Champions of the Earth” in Asia and the Pacific category by the United Nations Environment Programme. He was also honored in the 2020 “Forbes 30 under 30” Asia list of Social Entrepreneurs. Takachar’s vision is to convert waste biomass into marketable products and reduce the air pollution due to open burning of agricultural biomass.
- Mr Vidyut Mohan, greetings from Diplomacy and Beyond Plus and congratulations on winning the 2020 Young Champions of the Earth award. You founded Takachar along with Kevin to find viable solutions to reduce air pollution caused by crop burning and biomass burning. Can you share your journey with us?
Idea for this project was seeded in my mind during my master’s studies at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. I was doing a course in sustainable energy technology and I was evaluating various options to do my thesis on. There was a vibrant variety of energy research happening in the university in solar energy, wind energy, batteries, fuel cells etc. What I saw was that the industry was developing rapidly in the solar wind and battery sector. Biomass energy industry had large potential, but its growth was very limited, and it was not scaling to the level it could. Moreover, I had always known that working with biomass would be impactful because I would be working with farmers and communities who work with biomass and any intervention in that area could also mean Improvement in the lives of people who are custodian of that biomass. Thirdly, somewhere around 2015 in 2016, this air pollution problem in Delhi and North India started to get worse through partial contribution of biomass burning. I am sure it happened before that as well, but it started getting more attention around that time onwards. Being from Delhi and having older members of my family suffering from air pollution and cold in Delhi, I decided that this could be an interesting area to explore and let’s at least try to do a thesis on that. So, I did my thesis exploring rapid utilization of biomass and its application in India. I focused on designing and applying small scale thermo-chemical equipment that upgrade waste biomass to fuels, fertilizers and specialty chemicals in that thesis. After completing my thesis, I realised that my thesis should not just lie in the book in a library, I should at least try to see how it can be implemented and that’s how I decided to continue further from that.
I met Kevin in 2014 and he was also doing this research in a similar field while pursuing PhD from MIT. His research was funded by Tata centre there and it had an India focus as well. Both of us visited Delhi while working on the same concept, biomass torrefaction, and I presented my idea to a company in Delhi. They told me that there is this other guy who is working on the same concept and you should get in touch with him. So, I contacted him and since this is a small world in terms of the number of people working on the same idea, we kept in touch. Both of us had interest in practically implementing our ideas on the ground rather than just leaving it as some scientific. Our partnership evolved over the time leading to the foundation of 2018.
Initially we started with funding from my university and MIT Tata Centre also allocated some funds. Later we followed with crowdfunding campaigns. We also applied for various grants in the US and India including government grants and private grants. We constantly apply for fellowships and other funding competitions in the private sector such as Echoing Green fellowship and Schmidt Marine foundations. Hence so far, our work has been funded by grants.
- Can you explain the process used by Takachar to convert biomass and how it helps to reduce air pollution?
We have developed and patented the design of small-scale, low-cost, portable equipment that uses the process called “oxygen-lean torrefaction” to convert waste biomass into carbon rich products like solid fuel, fertilizer, and other specialty chemicals. The process of torrefaction has roots in how we roast coffee, hence essentially what we do is we roast biomass. Torrefaction process in simple words means roasting the biomass in insufficient oxygen between 200-350 degree Celsius and depending on how we roast it produces a carbon rich material that comes out from the machine. The process essentially takes out low energy molecules from the biomass and leaves behind high energy containing molecules. Output of the machine varies depending upon the severity of torrefaction. If biomass is heated at 350 degrees Celsius for a longer period, you get charcoal. If you do milder torrefaction, that is if you heat at lower temperature for a short period of time you get a product which is somewhere between dried biomass and charcoal with patterns with high energy density, but it won’t be completed into charcoal completely.
Converting crop residues into fuels, fertilizers, and value-added chemicals like activated carbon on-site reduces air pollution associated with crop residue burning, while ensuring a stable, renewable, pollution free and financially lucrative raw material supply for the activated carbon industry as opposed to the traditional fossil-based sources. Takachar aims to mitigate one gigaton/year of CO2 equivalent by 2030.
- The end product from your machine has a range of applications including biomass and activated carbon. In Kenya, a similar process is being used to produce fertilizer. What product you think would be most suitable for India?
Our technology is biomass agnostic in terms of crop residue so it can take a wide variety of crop residues like rice husks, coconut shells, paddy straw etc. The output depends on what biomass you are putting in and it also can be tuned according to market application. For example, it can be used as a fuel, it can be used as a fertiliser, and it can be used as an activated carbon. So, there’s a wide variety of applications and everything is very context specific. One cannot really target everything all at once and try to scale the operations all at once. Hence, our starting market in India is activated carbon. We are aiming to scale in the activated carbon industry in India and in other countries where it is required. Having said that, we also aim to expand into a variety of applications like fertilizers and solid fuel, which we would begin to scale once we start gaining traction in the activated carbon industry.
- Have you deployed this machine in India or is it still in the experimental stage?
So we have had various stages of product development and it started as a very small lab project with which took in 2 kgs of biomass feed per hour, we scaled that to increase intake to 20 kg feed per hour. We experimented with various kinds of biomass and finished testing. That experimental set up is also shown in the UN video. Now we are in the process of designing a final commercial product. The designs are almost ready, and we will be fabricating the devices and proceed to pilot deployment with commercial customers in 2021.
- What is your target audience for this device?
Our target audience would be farmer groups and farm-based business, like rise mills, oil mills etc. These people would own and operate the machines. We would also connect users to industries who would buy the output produced by machine, which will further incentivise the adoption of machines. We realise that we will have to work on creating the market aspect as well, because the machine will sell only if there are buyers for the output produced by the machine.
- The green technologies are often costly. How do you aim to make your device and process affordable?
From day one our design approach has been that this product should be deployable in rural areas and affordable to farm groups and farm-based businesses. We are aiming for a payback period of less than one year for the product. Our focus is on using locally available materials in India and devices that can be deployed and maintained with local available expertise. Our approach is slightly different as compared to other competitive technologies. Others focus on large scale and centralised operations with large plants and large volumes of biomass. Our approach is different in a manner that we are focusing on small scale decentralised machines That are less risky in investment, less capital intensive, and more mobile in deployment. Hence rather than transporting the biomass to the plant we emphasise on taking the machine where biomass is, so that on-site processing can be done. This also greatly reduces the transportation cost of biomass. Large scale plants require investment upwards of crores and it is a very heavy capital investment. That approach hasn’t worked very successfully because of the large transportation costs of biomass and in a lot of cases the return on investment hasn’t been proven viable. Hence, we focused on smaller devices which cost less and would make it easier to recover the costs.
- What is your most memorable learning experience so far while working on Takachar’s experimental device?
In 2017, during the very initial stages of our project we wanted to test a design and understand the impact of our machine on the field. We did a pilot in a village of Pithoragarh district in Uttarakhand with an organisation called Avani. Pine needles are a big problem there which causes regular forest fires every year. We worked with 15 villagers and all 15 of them were women, because most men in the village had migrated to cities in search of work. We set up the machine in the village itself. The woman we worked with would collect the pine machine needles and they were paid, and we used those pine needles to produce charcoal using our machine. During that period, the woman managed to earn twice of what they would have usually earned otherwise. They did not have any other sources of income or they had to go to long distances to find work or work as a daily wage labourer. The experience of working during that test project gave us a lot of confidence that our project can have a great impact on not just the environment but socially as well.
- So far, what are the biggest challenges you faced while working on your innovative device?
We have two fronts of challenges. Firstly, we are a hardware company, so it takes time to get a product out in the market – unlike an app or website or an e- Commerce marketplace. It takes years and years of R&D and further engineering work of a few years to get a product out. During that time, one must sustain financially. It has been a challenge to raise funding, specifically in India. That is definitely one thing.
Second challenge is the market for the output from our machine. It has been challenging to produce required output for the activated carbon industry. Now for activated carbon the marketplace has already been created but for fertilizers and solid fuels we have to create marketplace ourselves and that is a very big challenge in terms of scaling.
- A common expectation from students going abroad for studying is to get a high paying job and work for an MNC. What was your family’s response when you decided to venture into social entrepreneurship?
My family is incredibly supportive. Initially they had concerns as to how I am going to manage but then they said as long as I’m financially independent they are okay with whatever decisions I take. That was their only condition. Somehow, we have been able to manage enough funds to get this going. We also try to run the company in a very lean way. Until mid of 2020, Kevin and I were only two employees and even now we have just three full time employees. We still have a long way to go since start-ups need a lot of work and lots of risk of failure. Hence, we have to keep working.
- What has changed after winning the 2020 Young Champions of the Earth award?
The award definitely validates a lot of what we are doing. It gives us a lot of confidence and it emboldens our spirit and mission to fight climate change – to work harder towards that goal to protect and save the planet. The award has also given us recognition on a worldwide stage and confidence to reach out to supporters, companies and large corporations for support and partnership. It has given a strong brand value to our company. The award also brought us closer to a strong cohort of companies and individuals who have won this award in past and present, and we feel connected to a network that is very supportive and helps each other grow.
- What would be your message for young entrepreneurs who are working towards making a social change?
I would like to tell young entrepreneurs to identify a problem that they resonate with based on your upbringing, past experiences, interactions, education etc – there are lots of problems around us. Try to catch hold of those problems and try to be curious. Try to understand the problems in detail. It will eventually lead you somewhere to understanding the problem and arriving at a solution. Have a scientific and explorative mindset towards an issue.
Secondly, I would say never fall in love with the solution but fall in love with the problem. Because a particular solution or being fascinated with a particular solution may not always be the best thing to address the problem. Always be centred on the problem, solution will automatically come.