UP project runner-up at UK award

LONDON (TIP): First the good news – a rural project in the heart of Uttar Pradesh that plans to use abundantly and cheaply available agricultural waste as feedstock to co-produce reliable and affordable electricity and clean household cooking gas has become the runner up for the first prize floated by world famous Imperial College for its most innovative female student entrepreneurs in science and technology.

The bad news however is that two female students from India, who had made it to the top five shortlist failed to make it to the winner’s podium.

The £10,000 Althea-Imperial prize was won by Charikleia Spathi, a PhD student from the faculty of engineering for her idea of creating ultra-waterproof concrete additive that makes buildings less vulnerable to natural hazards like flooding.

Spathi draws on the use of paper sludge ash, a waste product to create a super waterproof powder.

The two Indian students – one who has developed a vaccine delivery system and another who is working on a way of enabling citizen scientists to help find potential new antibiotics failed to win the prize.

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Meanwhile the UP project Oorja is by Clementine Chambon, a PhD student which aims to build and install decentralised, easy to operate plants to power off-grid villages in rural India, where it will be owned and leased by micro-entrepreneurs and women’s self-help groups.

These ‘mini power-plants’ will coproduce renewable energy and biochar from crop residues. Clean and reliable electricity will help increase the time children can study, facilitate mobile phone charging and use of computers and extend business hours beyond daylight. Provision of cooking gas will reduce the time women spend collecting firewood and reduce health hazards.

Biochar will also help improve soil fertility by improving its water retention capacity, resulting in higher crop yields and enhanced food security.

Speaking exclusively to TOI, Chambon said, “We are developing an innovative and sustainable technological solution to address the challenges of energy poverty, soil degradation, food security and greenhouse gas emissions simultaneously. Biochar is a natural and safe soil remediation product which will help restore degraded agricultural soils by improving its water and micro-nutrient retention capacity, thereby significantly increasing crop yields and improving farmer incomes. It will reduce the dependence on fertilizers and store up to 80%of organic carbon by mass permanently and safely in the soil, providing negative carbon emissions.”

Chambon added, “We will pilot our solution in rural Eastern UP where nearly 80% of villages are un-electrified. They rely on fossil-fuels such as kerosene for household lighting, firewood for cooking and diesel for irrigation and commercial power. All of these are expensive and unreliable alternatives and harmful to health and environment, releasing large amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere. Here, 75% of people are engaged in agriculture for their livelihood and a major driver of poverty is crop failure, due to soil degradation resulting from frequent droughts and floods, exacerbated by the pernicious effects of climate change. Our mission is to develop locally available crop wastes”.

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