Sikkim Researcher turns obnoxious wet organic municipal solid waste into a coffee scented coal

In conversation with Sikkim Chronicle, Hari Bhakta Sharma highlights more on his finding and also on Why  Sikkim should adopt a more scientific and holistic way of solid waste management.

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Gangtok, May 7: A PhD research scholar from Sikkim, Hari Bhakta Sharma who presently is pursuing his research in IIT Kharagpur at Department of Civil Engineering (Environmental Engineering and Management section) on Solid Waste Management has come up with a new finding through which an obnoxious wet organic municipal solid waste could be turned into a coffee scented coal using wet oxidation method also called as wet torrefaction or hydrothermal carbonization. 

His work was recently published in an international journal of waste management in Elsevier (world’s major providers of scientific, technical, and medical information).

Son of D.R Sharma (Luitel) and Bishnu Maya Sharma, Hari Sharma is a resident of a remote village (Martam) of West Sikkim under Geyzing Bermoik Constituency. He did his schooling from different Govt. school of Sikkim. However, Class 10 and 12 were completed from Bermoik Secondary School (Bermoik West Sikkim) and Sir TNSSS Gangtok respectively. 

He was also Former Junior Research Fellow (JRF) at the DBT funded IC-IMPACT- Canada-India Research Centre of Excellence project, titled, “Innovative low-cost green technology for the treatment of wastewater is discharging into tributaries and rivers” at Jalandhar for one year.  

He was selected with a full scholarship to attend the workshop titled “Sustainable Solid Waste Management (SuSWAM) 2017” at McGill University Montreal, Canada.  He was one of the winners of the of international essay competition (winner of which gets a chance to attain the winter school at the University of Texas at Arlington, USA) conducted by International National Solid Waste Association.  

In conversation with SIKKIM CHRONICLE, Hari Bhakta Sharma highlights more on his finding and also on Why  Sikkim should adopt a more scientific and holistic way of solid waste management.

“People should know that dilution is not the solution to pollution. Recently released Swachh Survekshan 2019 report doesn’t say any good about Sikkim and Gangtok(ULB). There is a declining trend in ranking since 2017. ULB (Gangtok) and Sikkim should adopt a more scientific and holistic way of solid waste management”

Following is the excerpt on an interview: 

SIKKIM CHRONICLE (SC) : Can you share about your research work and new findings? 

HARI BHAKTA SHARMA (HBS) : My research mainly deals with resource recovery from the organic fraction of municipal solid waste within the ambit of circular economy concept. Valorization of wet organic unsegregated waste to produce solid biofuel and value aided product is the prime objective.  The main reason why waste to energy plant in India is not successful is because of the poor quality of waste that reaches the plant. Poor quality is mainly due to the poor practice of source segregation. When wet and dry waste gets mixed it not only enhances the moisture content of the resultant mixed waste but it also decreases the energy content (Calorific Value). Current waste to energy plant doesn’t process mixed wet waste; it has to be dried before using in waste to energy plant. Drying is an energy-intensive process which makes the whole business of running waste to energy plan less profitable.

To address the problem of using wet mixed waste, we tried using a wet oxidation process, also called as wet torrefaction or hydrothermal carbonization. Name its self speaks; hydro means water and thermal mean heat. It’s a process where heated water is used as a reacting medium in a closed reactor to carbonize a wet organic waste into lignite like brown coal having enhanced calorific value. Simple chemistry is needed to understand the process mechanism. The process doesn’t require waste to be dried, instead more water is poured and is completely drenched.  Final produced after carbonization smells likes a coffee.  The final product is known as hydrochar. Hydrochar can be used in thermal power plant along with coal to produce electricity. Moreover, due to high surface area and enriched functional group, it can be used as an adsorbent for treating wastewater, for storing energy in a super-capacitor, for treating contaminated soil/sites and for preparing noble carbon material.  Hydrothermal carbonization technology as a treatment alternative is not tried currently anywhere in India.

We are also currently using food waste, textile waste, sewage sludge and other green waste from municipality to hydrothermally treat and produce carbon-rich hydrochar. Reactor optimization and life cycle assessment using sigma pro software will highlight its social-economic- environmental benefits.   

SC: Why did you thought of  doing research on solid waste management?

HBS: Solid waste management is the most neglected area in India until recently. Most of the funding from ministry was mainly targeted for wastewater treatment and its reuse. Solid waste management has never been a priority of any policymakers and very little finds trickles down up to it.  India has only recently taken up solid waste management seriously, mostly after swatch Bharat scheme. 5 % of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions contributed by waste management is mainly driven by improper organic waste management. It is further reiterated that even a minimal basic system improvement can reduce GHG emissions by 25 %. The 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide–equivalent (CO2-equivalent) emissions estimated for 2016 are anticipated to increase to 2.6 billion tonnes by 2050. Decomposing organic waste which generates methane (It is many times more potent than CO) is the single largest contributor to GHG emission. Concept of 3Rs (reduce-reuse-recycle), improved waste collection, proper organic waste management, capturing of GHGs and resource recovery can help mitigate emission and avert global climate catastrophe. Looking at such an issue and being Civil and Environmental Engineer I decided to take solid waste management as a research area and do something that helps save mother earth.

SC: What is your take on solid waste management in context to Sikkim?

HBS: People should know that dilution is not the solution to pollution. Recently released Swachh Survekshan 2019 report doesn’t say any good about Sikkim and Gangtok(ULB). There is a declining trend in ranking since 2017. ULB (Gangtok) and Sikkim should adopt a more scientific and holistic way of solid waste management. I mean how long will the small city of Gangtok take to educate its citizen the importance of source separation? I try looking for data on the GMC website, but much to my disappointment, there is no adequate data. To make any policy manifest in its capability, it becomes extremely critical to have proper data. Data is the single most important weapon for effective policymaking. I hope things will change. Another disappointment that reflects in the report is the lack of people participation. Gangtok and Namchi being listed in the smart city list, I seriously hope that this city gets enough nourishment to transform into a livable, sustainable smart city, not just an agglomeration of the concrete jungle.

SC: What were the challenges you faced during your research work?

HBS: Research area being new, it was really hard for me to start from scratch in a new lab setting at the beginning. However, the initial experience of JRF in the Indo Canadian Project helped me a lot to cope up with early fear of PhD.  Experiment failure is common and getting disappointed with yourself, doubting yourself are common during PhD. Validating the result, establishing it and reproducing it are few things one has to bear with before sending it for publication. It is said that what doesn’t  kills you makes strong. How quickly you adjust to the new setting and how bravely you take up the challenges will determine if you will perish or survive.  

SC: Who is your motivation?

HBS: In my research career my PhD supervisor Prof Brajesh Dubey is my motivation. He is an expert garbologist. Being an ardent lover of philosophy, I get a lot of motivation from the work of western philosopher like Frederic Nietzsche, Albert Camus etc.

SC: What is your plan after your complete your PhD?

HBS: I wish to enter into academics and actively take waste management as a research field. Not only a city waste, taking care of waste in Himalaya, protected areas and understanding and quantifying microplastic pollution in the Himalayan River is a few of my research interest. But before that, I hope I will also get some international exposure in a more groomed laboratory setting for my postdoc. Scope of environmental research is huge in Sikkim, provided we build an infrastructure needed for it.

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