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September 2008


In perpetual inventiveness


It's cool within the office of Auroville's Centre for Scientific Research (CSR); not cold, but a pleasant chill compared to the outside. Yet, no steady hum of an air-conditioner can be heard...

“That's correct. At CSR most of power comes from solar photo-voltaic system and running an a/c is unviable with that,” says Alok Mallick matter-of-factly. “We have an environment-friendly option; a home-built dehumidifier. It takes the moisture out of the atmosphere and because of that we feel nice and cool – even though there is only a 2°C difference between the inside and outside. The system uses only 800-1000 watts for a volume of 333 square metres of office space as against about 7800 watts for air-conditioning. Not bad, eh?!”

A solar dryer to dry vegetables and fruits developed by Alok at AuroRE.

Alok is amongst the newest recruits to AuroRE, Auroville's renewable energy unit, which is headquartered at CSR. A mechanical engineer by profession, he joined AuroRE in 2005. One of his main involvements, for the moment, is inventing ‘new things'. “We have been involved in developing the solar streetlights in Auroville, designing changes to solar hot water systems, making a biomass-based dryer for Discipline Farm, developing solar driers for some NGOs and doing other mechanical engineering designs,” he says.

His most promising project is an air-conditioning system that works without using electricity. “The system is based on thermal energy, which means it uses heat instead of electricity,” explains Alok. “The technique, called ‘absorption refrigeration,' is well-known. It is used for commercial climate control and for cooling of machinery where excess heat is available. It is also used in refrigerators that burn gas or kerosene to create heat to produce the cold inside the refrigerator. The problems with these systems are due to their use of water and ammonia as refrigerant. I have designed a system that does not use water but uses salt to absorb ammonia. A solar hot water system supplies the necessary heat.”

“The savings are tremendous as the system uses no electricity for its functioning and only a minimal amount for its circulatory systems,” says Alok. “If the a/c runs for 6 months a year, the investment pays off in 2½ – 3 years. Thereafter the system runs free of cost.” Is the invention patentable? He shrugs. “As far as I know, there is no such system in existence in India or anywhere else in the world. We are thinking of patenting it.”

While the design phase of the system is over, commercialisation is not yet happening. “We first want to gain more experience with our prototype before commercialising the product,” says Alok. “But we at AuroRE are not manufacturers and are very likely not going to be,” he explains. “Perhaps we'll find someone else in Auroville or outside who could commercialise the product.”

Alok was an ‘Ashram kid'. “But,” he says, “Auroville too is part of my home turf. My parents used to help in early Matrimandir foundation-work and we children tagged along and played around.” His visits to Auroville continued throughout his school days, notwithstanding strict orders from the Ashram school to the contrary.

He then studied mechanical engineering and later engineering science and mechanics at Virginia Tech in the USA . “Inventing for the environment has always been the challenge before me,” he says. At Virginia Tech he participated in the Solar Decathlon 2002, an international competition to design and build, the most effective and attractive house and a small vehicle powered solely by the sun. He later participated as lead diver and engineer on board a vessel that went on three-month expeditions to the Sub-Arctic and Arctic coastal areas. “The team was studying algae as an indicator of changing global temperatures and environmental conditions,” explains Alok.

The next challenging project was to design pedal-powered bio-diesel reactors for a number of remote tribal villages in interior Orissa. “People there did not have a source of clean water and needed fuel to run a pump to draw water up to the village. There was no electricity, the villages were isolated and not connected by road, and they did not have the money to purchase the diesel for normal pumps. Our team came up with the solution of using oil-bearing seeds from the forest as fuel. We built a system to solar-dry the seeds, extract oil from them, and convert the oil into bio-diesel which in turn could run the pumps. The residual oil cake could be used as a fertilizer. We also made a multi-purpose pedal powered grinder by which villagers could grind down the big oil seeds; with a change of sieve they could use it to grind their grains more easily than using stone-grinders or taking them all the way to the mills in town”

Auroville fits Alok's environmental and spiritual ideals like a glove. What other plans does he have? “Ideas constantly keep popping up,” he says. “The team here stimulates each other. For the eco-community Sadhana Forest we designed and built a machine that looks like an exercise bike. You generate electricity while pedalling and this is then stored it into a battery. We just released information on Namuna – the solar electric buggy which we developed here in Auroville. [see accompanying article]. We are busy with creating systems to clean water with algae and using it as bio-fuel. There is no end in sight.”

A spin on the Namuna. Alok taking Governing Board member Ajoy Bagchi on a test drive. “We are still working on its looks” writes AuroRE.

In conversation with Carel

Photo credit: Photo courtesy Aurore



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