Anant was selected as was selected as one of 2022’s British Council Awards Finalists for his work in Sustainable Chemical Technology. Alumni Voices caught up with York alum, Professor Anant Kapdi (2003 – 2008) about the sustainable scientific problems he is trying to solve and his take on the world’s environmental problems.
Chemical Technology in Sustainability
We always say that nature teaches us a lot, even things that are happening naturally in our bodies. How are we so efficient? How are our bodies naturally able to modify themselves? Can we embed this in our chemical processes? We are trying to mimic the enzymes in our body as everything that happens in our body is so perfectly calculated. It will make a huge impact in the near future.
“We are trying to mimic the enzymes in our body as everything that happens in our body is so perfectly calculated.”
Organic synthesis means any compound that is naturally occurring when isolated from their natural source – sponges, fungi, different parts of trees, oceans and microorganisms in the oceans. These molecules that are isolated have specific biologic activity, some exhibiting antiviral or anticancer activities. If you are able to extract cancer preventing, antiviral or antibacterial molecules from naturally occurring sources, there are opportunities for many diseases to be treated. We wanted to make these naturally occurring molecules readily available as drugs or medicine; right now we are examining the structure of the molecule and devising methods to synthesise and produce it on a large scale. Being able to use organic chemistry to solve our world’s medical problems is an exciting world of research to work in as exceptional breakthroughs are being made.
“If you are able to extract cancer preventing, antiviral or antibacterial molecules from naturally occurring sources, there are opportunities for many diseases to be treated.”
After coming back to India in 2010, I’ve been working with companies who come to us with new questions, new processes and products that need developing.
In 2020, I proposed the creation of the Innovation, Sustainability and Chemistry Consortium to the Royal Society of Chemistry as well as The Business Energy and Industrial Safety Department of the UK Government along with Dr. Stellios Arseniyadis of Queen Mary University, to regulate safety and sustainability in India via bilateral collaboration. Now we have a consortium of thirteen scientists; six from India and seven from the UK – I am the Indian coordinator of that consortium. During the pandemic we came up with ideas for solving environmental industry-related issues.
Prior to 2020, in India when you want to prepare any molecule you would commonly use batch reactors. If you are not careful the reaction can become out of control, leading to explosions and hazardous gas leaks. Three years ago there was an explosion that happened near Mumbai – the batch reactor went out of control and killed several people, some of them we knew very closely. There have also been instances of chemicals stored in large vessels undergoing a chain polymerization reaction triggered by a change in the environmental conditions around the reactor resulting in an explosion, or the leak of hazardous gases. Usually the companies are in the vicinity of big cities so this can have devastating effects given the high density of people living in the vicinity of these plants. An example of this was the Bhopal Gas Tragedy in 1984 – that explosion not only killed 2,259 in the immediate area, but the hazardous gases killed 3,787 more people as it spread over many more kilometres.
“Usually the companies are in main cities so this can have devastating effects with the amount of people the hazardous gases reach. An example of this was the Bhopal Gas Tragedy in 1984 – that explosion not only killed 2,259 people in the immediate area, but the hazardous gases killed 3,787 more people as it spread over many more kilometres.”
The same things used to happen in the UK when reactors would spread but a key change occurred when the government started to understand this was not the way to go. Over time in India there has been a realisation that these batch reactors need to be slowly phased out and replaced as there are also lots of associated environmental problems. Europe and the USA have become very efficient, with strong rules and laws to limit the environmental impact a company can have – this has allowed companies to develop better processes to cut down on waste.
This is now a priority for India and China so most companies want to go with these new types of models, known as ‘continuous flow reactors’, as they are less hazardous and minimise the amount of waste that is created. These are not only more safe, but they also minimise waste production, take up less space and you are able to control the problem reactions (that you can’t do with the batch reactors). Agricultural, pharmaceutical, chemical factories in India and China are now phasing out the batch reactors and replacing them with flow reactors
As a part of the promotion of collaboration between Indian and UK counterparts in our consortium, my research group is collaborating with a Professor at Oxford University (Kylie Vincent) to identify molecules used in the agrochemical or pharmaceutical industry which can be obtained by combining several steps and minimising the hazardous waste generation as well as possible byproducts.
“Reducing the number of steps by half or more would significantly reduce the risk of polluting the environment by the volatile solvents.”
Reducing the number of steps by half or more would significantly reduce the risk of polluting the environment by the volatile solvents. The future focus should be on making the science simple and straightforward so that the people on the ground can carry it out themselves in a safe manner.
Using Chemical Technology for our Environmental Future
I think the biggest sustainability challenge facing the world today is whether we can move away from carbon containing fossil fuels or coal. CO2 emission is an imminent problem for the world to tackle and it’s having a huge impact everywhere. This year we have seen droughts in Europe and, from a local point of view, we have seen an increase in the intensity of the rain in India, especially Mumbai. Several lakes that feed water to Mumbai, every year in general, take several weeks of rain to fill them up; while this year the unusually high intensity of rain meant the lakes got filled in a space of just ten to fifteen days.
When we have lots of rain near the coast, the plains in continental India have faced droughts – they are supposed to be the main centre of agricultural India which will impact our food crops.
On the East coast we are used to having cyclones but from the past three years the pattern has changed and we have started getting powerful cyclones even on the west coast. The patterns are changing rapidly and, unless we try to change it, it’s going to impact us seriously over the next five to ten years.
Firstly, we need to address the CO2 emissions and cut down our dependency on carbon based fuels and come up with renewable resources, such as green energy, solar and wind power. If CO2 concentration in the atmosphere increases, the temperature increases and creates a bigger problem due to the melting of the polar caps. While the release of another greenhouse gas – methane – that has been trapped in the permafrost for thousands of years, poses a much bigger threat to the environment than CO2. Methane is ten to twenty times more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, capable of impacting the global temperature much more.
Capturing CO2 and its utilisation is an important topic amongst scientists in academia as well as industry and companies such as BASF/ BAYER have started recapturing CO2 and utilising it for the preparation of polyurethane and polycarbonate, respectively. Now there is a push for the development of better CO2 capture technologies. Capturing CO2 at the source and not allowing it to be released but reconverting it back into a different application is the need of the hour.
“We try to create new technologies but sometimes it feels like there is always a new monster that gets created and we then spend the next twenty years solving that problem.”
Plastic is another serious problem faced by mankind as the non-biodegradable nature of many of the polymers makes it hard to remove it from the environment and has a significant impact. We try to create new technologies but sometimes it feels like there is always a new monster that gets created and we then spend the next twenty years solving that problem.
I have made five year plans detailing the path that the research group will follow to achieve the set milestones. The next few years are going to be crucial, as we set forth on our plans to put these better catalytic systems into place to address environmental industry related issues and provide sustainable solutions.
The University of York is committed to sustainability and has recently launched the digital platform and app called Giki Zero among the alumni. Giki enables you to calculate your current footprint and discover how you can further reduce your impact. Sign up to Giki now via this link.