In January of this year, I came across a call from the Knowledge Transfer Network called UK India Urban Challenge to present novel ideas to deal with significant waste problems in India. Approximately 36.5 million tonnes of municipal solid waste is generated in India annually, and this generates liquid as it decomposes, but also during times of heavy precipitation (monsoon), it generates large amounts of liquid that drains from the waste site. This is contaminated with toxic levels of organic matter, ammoniacal-nitrogen (NH3-N), heavy metals, chlorinated organic and inorganic salts. Moreover, since the green revolution, fertiliser use in India is up, and reached a staggering 61.4 million tonnes in 2020- leading to nutrient run off and pollution to local rivers. In fact, it is estimated that 38,000 million litres of wastewater enters the major rivers in India every day.
Considering the success we have had in demonstrating our biological engineering technologies and that “smart biology can lead to better process engineering” (a quote shamelessly stolen from Prof. Tom Curtis at Newcastle Uni), I thought it would be an interesting avenue to get closer to the issue. Can we apply some of our engineered microbial solutions for detoxifying waste streams in a sustainable way? I drafted an application and left it on my desktop for a few days. After getting a chance to come back to the idea and application- I shifted the focus to the circular economy, what resources can be recovered from the Indian waste and what products can be generated that would provide a more novel solution to the aforementioned problems?
In February, at around close of play on a Friday, I received a phone call from the effervescent Bruce McLelland, from the KTN. They liked the idea and wanted the Pandhal Group to join a week long Hackathon with 11 other finalists out of the 210 who applied. It was quite unexpected so I was a little apprehensive at first, and especially considering my work load this semester! The next week consisted of three meetings a day- but importantly, Monday morning enabled us to meet other finalists and present our proposed solutions. The first thing I noticed was the contribution from commercial interests in the competition, I wasn’t really sure where we would fit in. I tried to attend where I had gaps in my calendar- whether it was a 1 on 1 meeting with the KTN team at lunch times or even the “Camp Fire” events at 5pm each day. Finally, on the Friday we presented our ideas to panellists from the UK and India. It was an intense series of 30 min presentations with questions. Amazingly, we won with 3 other companies. This meant that the next week we presented our research to Ministry officials in India, including the Director of Smart Cities Mission, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MOHUA) from the Government of India, the Chair for Urban Resilience, Global Resilience Cities Network (National Institute of Urban Affairs), executive directors of three consultancies and four managing directors from investors.
The next stage? To further pursue ideas and visit sites for some algal-bacterial waste conversion opportunities. Watch this space…