Sindhuja-1: A Journey towards a New Wave
By Indraneel Chakrabarty: A group of researchers have successfully generated electricity by using sea waves as they have developed an ‘Ocean Wave Energy Converter’, i.e., Sindhuja-1. According to I.I.T. Madras, the trials of the device, which was deployed at a location about 6 KM off the coast of Tuticorin, in Tamil Nadu, at a location with a depth of 20 metres, were completed during the second week of November 2022.
In an email interaction with Prof Abdus Samad, Department of Ocean Engineering, I.I.T. Madras, The Quotes tried to understand the significance of the device and what was at stake for his team while developing such a revolutionary device. Excerpts of the conversation.
Congratulations on the successful trial of Sindhuja-1. Such a complicated invention must have required thorough research and time. Kindly help our readers understand the inspiration behind Sindhuja-1 and the magnitude of research (time and institutes involved) your team put into the project.
Thanks. The tasks were huge. We began innovating, designing, and testing in the lab several years earlier. We coupled lab tests and numerical simulations. The Ocean Engineering Department of IIT Madras has a wave basin where we generate water waves. We put our system in the waves and tested it. Then the COVID lockdown happened! I eventually got my students and staff back to the campus. We designed a slightly bigger-sized buoy and planned for a sea trial in November.
The design needed a CAD model, communicating with the machine shop and pushing them for deadlines, I sat in the lab with my team, and we designed every piece of the equipment. We worked for over 16 hours daily during the test preparation stage. Despite the monsoon season in Chennai, we continued working. We could not go for lunch or dinner and were keen on saving time. Hence, we brought our meals to the lab.
Then, the next thing came up: transportation to Tuticorin.
As we had limited money, we could neither afford trucks for transportation nor hire labourers. My team planned the transportation of each piece of equipment by train. So, we lifted the items ourselves, carried them to the Egmore station, and put them onto the train. Finally, we carried materials weighing over 400 kilograms.
After that, the team again carried the machine from the Tuticorin station to the port (the Test site), assembled it there, and put it in the harbour water for an initial trial with calm water. We did not have any experience of working in the actual ocean, so we hired local labourers (fishermen) at Tuticorin; they put the machine in the ocean.
The team was apprehensive about inclement weather. IMD announced a red alert on the Tamil Nadu coast due to a weather depression. Finally, we got permission from the port authority and commenced activities in the port.
T-Day (T: testing)
On the day of testing, my team put on life jackets and jumped on the boat without taking anti-seasickness medicine, while the labourers transported over 400+ kgs weighing Sindhuja-1 on the ship. They wanted to see how their baby smiled on the sea surface. The boat took them 6 km from the coast, where the depth of the water was 20 metres. There were waves, the ship was resonating, and the crew was apprehensive. There was a concern that if the system did not work, what would we tell the stakeholders? The over 10 m long Sindhuja-1 was tied to the boat, partially submerged in the seawater and partly on the ship. During boat movement, it was just playing with water, cutting the water, and making noise. The team thought that if the system broke or the welding cracked, we would have to return to IIT, without testing, due to lack of funds.
Gradually, the ropes were untied, and Sindhuja-1 began sinking into the ocean. The diver jumped into the water, trying to locate its exact position inside the water. When a 10m long vertical rod went into the water, it slowly became vertical. Suspense increased! The diver removed the final rope and placed it in the proper position. Ninety percent of the system should get submerged and only ten percent should be on the water surface. The system worked as we guessed! The team was thrilled and shouted with joy!
We had several concerns. Among them, one concern was that the rack and pinion module might not work in the ocean, or the generator would not respond. However, it worked, the rack-and-pinion moved, and the generator produced electricity. The students on the boat went ecstatic with happiness. It was like the mother’s happiness when she heard her baby’s first cry!
While speaking to Indian Express, you said that generating electricity from the waves is comparatively more expensive than conventional energy sources. But, for a remote application like an island and offshore locations, the cost of transporting power over the sea could be higher than generating electricity. So, what are your expectations from the market or government (in case) regarding the implementation of Sindhuja-1? Which industries are you aspiring to be the customer base for the device?
We focus more on applications instead of giving only power at the initial stage. For example, say, can we provide drinking water to the islanders? Or can a small buoy show lights to the ships, like a beacon in the sea? Or, act as a surveillance system to assist coast guards? In 2-3 years, we will bring such products.
We plan to produce 1 MW of power in the next three years. This can be given to specific locations such as islands or grids. As we are in the R&D stage, the cost is steeper, but the price will eventually come down as time passes. For example, solar energy, too, was expensive a few years ago. But now it’s cheaper. Similarly, we expect to bring down costs when mass production begins.
On several occasions before the lockdown, I tried to secure funding from the government. Sometimes they said, “First show implementation in the field” sometimes, “do basic research”, and sometimes they said it was irrelevant. Finally, we convinced the DST (Department of Science and Technology), and they approved a project for Rs.1 crore for wave energy-based desalination.
Government agencies should understand the pathway to impact. Applied research should have an implementation goal, or it will die in the lab or the research papers. I am taking the bold step of translating research from the lab to the land. It is challenging but doable. We are approaching different organizations for upscaling and commercialization.
As per reports, Sindhuja-1 is set to go commercial by next year. So what will be the likely base price for the device to be rolled out in the market?
We need some more sea trials. We tested the basic system design, and we also need to work on storage, electronics, and communications. We need two more years to push the technology to the market. We expect almost a battery-free power station in the sea (solar power needs battery storage of about 16 hours).
With our system generating power 24×7, our battery requirement will be negligible. First, we will bring small devices into the market. Cost-wise, our products will be cheaper than the existing systems. We, however, haven’t yet finalized the aspects regarding the pricing.
The season often gets very unpredictable in the ocean. How safe will the device be if the weather gets disturbed?
We are working on seasonal variations and extreme weather. One of our concerns is – if there is too low a wave height, our system will give low power. Then again, if we have too high a storm and swell, the system’s survival will be questioned.
We are considering all such factors during the design phase. Site selection is an important task. It will be ideal if the location has low storm probability and high waves. At the same time, we are trying to make our system robust enough to handle the harshest weather conditions. We are at the initial stages. Gradually, with design improvements, we will make the system robust. Subsequent designs (Sindhuja-2, Sindhuja-3, Sindhuja-4,…) will be much better and efficient as I have a strong academic research team.
In January this year, the US Department of Energy announced a $25 million grant to companies that can harness waves to generate electricity. Meanwhile, the European Union hopes to generate 10 % of the region’s power demand through ocean energy by 2025. So how do you evaluate India’s current stature and the future in terms of generating energy by waves?
In India, wave energy was officially recognized in 2019 by MNRE, GoI. The potential of wave energy is 40GW, which could change the landscape of power utilization in our nation. The Indian government is looking towards renewable energy production on a huge scale & they are proposing the same in various Climate Conferences such as COP27 and Paris Climate Agreements, etc.
Now, our team is trying to bring a new domain to our energy production possibility and getting their attention to bring this into reality. This technology’s cost of production is a bit steeper than our current sources.
We are trying to change this mindset because the present solar energy, which is very affordable, was also introduced at a higher price, but with the progress in research, the price of solar power has come down. Similarly, our technology would also come into an affordable range with the progress in research.
Once the government and private investors try to target or support our journey, this technology can be commercially viable in the coming future. The system can be used for various applications such as – sea surveillance, navigational buoys, deep sea communication, power generation, coral reef regeneration, etc. This would help our nation on various fronts in strengthening its borders, energy production front, maritime front, etc.
What would be your message to all the stakeholders in and outside the country?
We intentionally have not made any major international partners yet. We wanted to show what we could do so that we could join the ‘Make in India’ movement. We have talent and great institutes. We can prove that we are capable of innovations and challenges. We may consider international partners once our capability is proven. At that point, we can contemplate the need for international market expansion.
Our R&D funding bodies should think of dividing the total fund into basic and applied research. Basic research should not starve because of pressure from the applied research team. At the same time, applied research funds should not be given to the ‘top scientists’ only to do numerical analysis, for some research irrelevant to India, or only working as an extension lab of an American university.
If someone is pushing technology towards commercialization, they must get sufficient support from government agencies. For example, I wanted to develop my wave energy system for sea trials, but a government agency declined to fund it as basic research was missing, without understanding the basic philosophy.
Therefore, DST and other bodies should have a proper project funding committee with knowledge of technology development rather than top college or top simulation scientists.
Tell us something about yourself sir, and your teammates involved in the Sindhuja-1 project.
I am from Sekedda village near Tagore’s place in West Bengal’s Birbhum district. My grandfather was a carpenter, and my father was a farmer. So, we had agricultural machinery at home. We used to make bullock carts, etc., had more than 20 cows, goats, sheep, etc. It was a pure agricultural family. I used to look after our domestic animals, giving them fodder, etc.
I am a Mechanical Engineering graduate from Aligarh Muslim University. Before joining IIT Madras in 2010, I worked at the University of Aberdeen (2008-2010). I have a PhD from the Inha University of South Korea, and the PhD topic was fluid flow and optimization. Once I joined, I learned about wave energy and started reading articles and watching YouTube videos. I filed some patents, some technologies were transferred to Intellectual Ventures Ltd, and IIT earned about 25,000 USD.
Then wave energy research slowly took up, and students joined. IIT Madras allocated Rs. 2 lakhs under Innovative Research Projects for my wave energy converter. Initially, I asked a student, Francis, to buy a cycle chain and freewheel to check if my electrical module worked.
Then, another student, Vishnu, came with his Sudarshan chakra, took all challenges; and manufactured and tested in the lab. Later, he moved to the USA for his PhD. Suman joined as an MS student, continued Vishnu’s work, graduated, and got a job in a company. He said one sunny morning, “I would not continue the corporate career. I would continue the wave energy development work.”
Before his decision, Sai Karthik from the Indian School of Business came to me and said, “Sir, I want to register a company and work for wave energy”. We decided not to go with international partners initially, as they would make us agents of their company.
We have talent here; we can do better than them. IIT Madras and Virya Paramita Energy Pvt Ltd (Sai’s company) signed a joint development agreement (JDA). Sai did his business management course in Australia.
Prof. Abhijit of the Applied Mechanics Department joined for Desalination with wave energy. I got PhD students Prashant, Devesh, Kalyan and Anulekha with our team. MNNIT Allahabad’s professor Akshay R. Paul joined for numerical analysis. Saket and Wasim, working on another project, worked selflessly to develop the system. Dr. Surjit and Mr. Sohrab of West Bengal College gave us an energy storage system.
One by one, we applied for several funds and almost always got rejected. We got frustrated. I called Sai to ask if we needed an international partner for the initial fund. Then we got the NIDHI-Prayas fund and the Australian Government fund. Just we entered into the IIT Madras-Carbon Zero Challenge competition to design a sea surveillance system. DST (Department of Science and Technology) approved Rs.1 crore for the Wave Energy-based Desalination System. We are moving on.