In conversation with Prof. Arnab Dutta and Prof. Vikram Vishal

Prof. Arnab Dutta is a faculty at the Department of Chemistry at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (IIT Bombay). His research interests include designing bio-inspired catalysts for CO2 mitigation and green hydrogen generation. His research group focuses on developing sustainable solutions by deploying circular economic processes in the pursuit of a greener future. Arnab is a recipient of the Ramanujan Fellowship. 

Prof. Vikram Vishal is a faculty at the Department of Earth Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (IIT Bombay). His research interests include CO2 capture and sequestration, geomechanics, and unconventional hydrocarbon petrophysics. He is a three-time national award and two-time Fulbright fellowship recipient.

Prof. Arnab Dutta (left) and Prof. Vikram Vishal (right)

Q. What was the moment that sparked your interest in carbon capture and sustainability? 

Vikram: We both hail from steel cities in India, so we were sensitized early on to issues related to the environment. In our school education, environmental studies were taught whereas climate change became part of our focus later. During student days at IIT Bombay in the 2000s, we learnt the details of energy demand, and a good majority of it being met by fossil fuels, which in turn release humungous volumes of carbon dioxide leading to accelerated rise in global average temperatures. The world emits nearly 40 gigatons of carbon dioxide annually. India is the third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide. As a growing economy, India needs energy, and fossil fuels continue to remain as the mainstay. We identified a significant gap in availability of cost-effective, scalable, and sustainable solutions to capture carbon dioxide from emission sources as well as from the air which contains historic emissions. With this in mind, we started our research. I pursued my PhD on geologic carbon sequestration, at a time when we still did not consider this as a key element in climate change mitigation. I decided to focus on it!

Arnab: I studied at IIT Bombay's Chemistry Department, and then went to the US to do my PhD on green hydrogen. It is important to create hydrogen to mitigate the CO2 problem. We are currently at a stage where the industrialized and developed countries were many years ago, which gives us a chance to course-correct to address the challenges caused by CO2 emissions and climate change. For the longest time, global warming and climate change were considered to be a hoax, but we are now seeing the significant effects of climate change on our lives. The issue is finally being acknowledged, which I think is the first step toward success. The challenge is to find solutions for carbon capture that are scalable and affordable. I was fascinated by how carbon capture happens in nature and was drawn to the idea of finding solutions that would mimic nature and be efficient and scalable.

Q. What was the motivation behind starting your company? how do you envision it contributing to global sustainability efforts?

Arnab: I have known Vikram since our college days. Vikram, at that time, was working on carbon sequestration. I was aware of the issues of global warming and climate change and was interested in working on carbon dioxide utilization. Our areas of expertise complemented each other, and we decided to collaborate on finding scalable and efficient methods for carbon capture that are also cost-effective. This was an important learning from various interactions we had with industry counterparts. We learned that sustainability and cost play a significant role when industries are trying to further develop and deploy solutions on a larger scale. With this in mind, we decided to work on developing an efficient and cost-effective carbon capture system. Initially, it was tough to get buy-ins from the industry. It was a challenging path to grow. However, over time, we received a significant welcoming response from industries, which gave us a lot of confidence to develop this further as our venture “UrjanovaC Pvt. Ltd.”, where Urja represents energy, nova represents innovation and C is for carbon removal in the form of CO2.

Vikram: As mentioned earlier, the world is emitting 40 gigatons of carbon dioxide and capturing only 50 million tons. Most utilization pathways for captured carbon would release it back into the atmosphere, which will not help in reducing the overall carbon dioxide levels. Therefore, we need to find solutions where we are capturing and not releasing it back at all. Our carbon capture technology produces carbonate salts, which can be utilized as a building material alongside other applications. Currently, there are about 25 green chemicals on the market that are manufactured from captured carbon dioxide. It is very important to be economically viable and develop solutions where further CO2 emission is minimized. 

Permanent removal can be achieved by geologically storing the carbon. We mapped that India has the potential to geologically store more than 300 gigatons of CO2, addressing the national and global gap. This solution can directly address the problem at scale.

WRCB and similar channels have been crucial in providing us with a platform to pursue our research and translate it into practical solutions. The investment in climate change mitigation technologies is the call of the hour right now. When companies validate and see that our solutions can be scaled up, it builds confidence from lab-based research to practical implementation, and this is a very important step that we need to take jointly with the industry.

Q. What advice would you give to young students and researchers who aspire to make a difference in this field?

Arnab: Whenever we believe in an idea with conviction, no matter how radical or how stupid it feels, we should pursue that. Indeed, with support from WRCB, we took one idea about carbon sequestration in biomass from being just a concept in our mind to physical realization – and completing this cycle is very important. 

Vikram: The upcoming generation is needed to address the grand challenges of the century and understand what the Sustainable Development Goals are. Clean energy and climate action are some of the important SDGs whereas the energy transition is necessary. There is an overall dearth of experts or even students in climate technology or sustainability as a whole that is needed to address the problems of this scale.

It is also a growing economic opportunity. For example, last year there were hundreds of billions of dollars of global investment in carbon capture technologies and overall, $1.8 trillion in energy transitions. Students will be the agents of this change. 

Q. What developments in carbon capture and sustainability are you most excited about right now?

Vikram and Arnab: There are over 30 faculty members and 100 PhDs and Postdocs at IIT Bombay who are working on different aspects of climate studies, with many having a focus on clean energy and decarbonization. IIT Bombay is very serious about climate change and sustainability and has been extremely supportive of our efforts to develop disruptive solutions in the carbon capture space. Our students have led and won various global competitions such as the CCS X-Prize supported by Elon Musk Foundation, Minus-CO2 from EAGE, Norway and the CO2 removal prize from Open Air Collective, New York, among others. 

One aspect of addressing the challenge is of course capturing the CO2, the second is converting the captured carbon into different products such as methanol, ethanol, carbonates, and carbon monoxide that are important to various industries. We have patents for calcium carbonate production from captured carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide generation. These are very unique processes using water as a medium to capture CO2.

The third is geological sequestration. We are working with industries such as ONGC, Oil India Ltd., Tata Steel Ltd., Coal India Ltd., and NTPC Ltd. that have subsurface access and are keen to address carbon capture at scale. The fourth area is cost-cutting, including transportation, life cycle analysis, techno-economic analysis, and bioenergy-based solutions.

We are really excited about the CO2 capture plant that we are setting up at the IIT Bombay campus using our patented technology. The plant will be up and running by August this year and is set to capture 3 tons of CO2 per day. For context, Tata Steel is capturing approximately 5 tons of CO2 per day. 

We are consistently striving to improve our processes and are open to collaborating and working with the right partners. IIT Bombay has provided fantastic resources and developed an ecosystem where we get support from various facets of the institute such as WRCB, SINE, the Dean Alumni and Corporate Relations office, the Development and Relations Foundation office, the Dean Research and Development office, IDP-Climate Studies, our parent departments, and more. We are grateful to be in an ecosystem that is completely aligned with the current needs and the larger goals in the decarbonization domain.

Prof. Arnab Dutta and Prof. Vikram Vishal received WRCB’s intramural funding support in 2023 to conduct research on Bioenergy driven carbon capture and storage (BECCS)

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