Dr. K. Radhakrishnan, the former Chairman of ISRO, spoke at the 5th Foundation Day of Pune International Center in Pune this Saturday. It was an excellent lecture, covering many details around ISRO’s great progress and achievements, and future plans. ISRO has made tremendous strides over the past four decades in R&D led innovation and has succeeded in developing key technologies such as the cryogenic propulsion system. One thing that stood out in my mind during the lecture was the extent of private industry participation in R&D and manufacturing, and the manufacturing ecosystem.
Dr. Radhakrishnan mentioned that 80% of the value addition of ISRO’s workhorse launcher, the ‘Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle’ (PSLV) comes from private industry. (Note – the PSLV is one of the most reliable space launch platforms in the world, with 34 successful launches in a row – at one of the lowest launch cost per payload weight).
These private industry contributions for building the PSLV come from over 120 large, medium and small companies. ISRO acts as the designer and system integrator, and assembles the final rocket at Satish Dhawan Space Center, Sriharikota. I had known about the industry participation, but the 80% number was indeed surprising. It was great to note the private sector’s role in India’s space program. ISRO is thus not only delivering great rockets and satellites technology, but also helping build an aerospace R&D and manufacturing ecosystem in India. This is critical. Over the past 50 years, NASA has played a key role in driving the development of a similar ecosystem in U.S. The advances made in space tech around materials, propulsion, guidance, navigation and other areas have many direct and indirect technology benefits in other sectors. ISRO should follow a similar example.
For the ‘Make in India’ initiative to succeed, we need high quality R&D investments in the public and private sector. R&D investments as a percent of GDP is an important metric and has a good correlation with the overall strength of the economy. South Korea (highest R&D/GDP in the world) is a great example. It invests 4.3% of its GDP in R&D. U.S. invests 2.7% (highest in absolute terms, given their GDP). China invests 2.1%. India invests only 0.85%.
Government led R&D is an important component of the total R&D spending in a country. Let’s look at the U.S. example. Here is a recent tweet by Bill Gates.
The tweet references a link from U.S. Department of Energy (www.energy.gov), where Bill Gates is drawing attention to this:
“Research and development (R&D) is the unsung hero of American innovation. Government-funded R&D spurs new industries, creates jobs and helps us tackle our greatest challenges. Decades ago, that challenge was the space race; today, it is climate change.”
While we regularly talk about the R&D in private sector U.S. companies such as Google, Apple, etc., what is often ignored is the huge investments made by the U.S. government in this area. NASA and U.S. Department of Defense are excellent examples. Another one is the agency that funds important research in U.S. Universities – NSF (National Science Foundation). Many of today’s great technologies and innovations were built on this R&D Foundation laid by the U.S. government R&D investments. Perhaps the best example of such an innovation is the ‘internet’. Just like U.S., France too has made many strategic R&D investments in areas related to aerospace & defense, energy and computing technologies.
Often government led R&D is also driven by a country’s strategic interests. This is very much applicable to India as well. This is one more important driver for government led R&D investments (and a topic of a separate article).
As discussed earlier, private R&D and manufacturing can build on top of the government led R&D initiatives. Yes, there are examples of wasteful expenditures, especially in the public sector. For one successful ISRO, there are counter examples as well. However, this should not deter the policy makers from allocating more R&D investments in strategic areas. It is important to study what has worked at ISRO, and then to institutionalize these processes in other R&D organizations. (This was one process related question, I wanted to ask Dr. Radhakrishnan yesterday, but we were short on time at the lecture).
ISRO represents one of the best examples (not just in India, but in the world) of effective and efficient R&D. The Mars Orbiter Mission ‘Mangalyaan’ is a great example. ISRO was able to deliver this incredible project for a fraction of the cost (around 10%) of what NASA spent on a similar project.
India’s goal should be create more ISRO like organizations in other areas – R&D driven organizations that develop important strategic and commercial products – and also help build a private R&D and manufacturing ecosystems around them. As a product/technology matures, the role of the private sector can grow. Where possible (in terms of tech capabilities), the private sector can also play an upfront role in collaborating on new technology development.
I visited the John F. Welch Technology Center of GE in Bangalore this weekend. They were celebrating the center’s 15th anniversary with a ‘Tech Mela’. Solutions from the various business units at GE were showcased. I have admired GE as a company, and their previous legendary chairman Jack Welch (I would highly recommend reading Jack Welch’s books about his management philosophy). This visit was a good opportunity for me the get a better understanding of their work.
The center (also referred to as GE ITC: GE India Technology Center) has over 5,000 R&D professionals working across healthcare, aircraft engines, transportation, energy and other GE verticals. This is the largest multi-disciplinary R&D center of GE in the world and more than 50% of the employees here have Masters or PhD degrees. The GE ITC is involved in supporting GE globally, as well as focusing on local/regional solutions for India and the emerging market.
I got a chance to interact with the head of GE ITC, Munesh Makhija (Managing Director, GE India Technology Centre Chief Technology Officer, GE South Asia). Here is a video of our interesting discussion (https://www.facebook.com/ge.tech.india/videos/vb.480156825343034/1075515979140446/?type=2&theater). It was good to hear about the overall focus and vision for the center, as well as their day to day activities and challenges. Hiring top talent is a challenge for every company and GE ITC is no different. Today, many top engineers want to work in software (and in startups), and this is a big hiring challenge. Along with their presence in Bangalore and Hyderabad, GE ITC is also trying to tap into the advanced manufacturing talent in Pune where they have a brand new state-of-the-art multi-modal manufacturing plant (inaugurated earlier this year). I suggested to Munesh that GE should seriously consider expanding their R&D activities in Pune. Pune is the biggest center for manufacturing in India and hosts many advanced manufacturing capabilities across large and SME companies, including a large talent pool.
Healthcare is one of the biggest groups at the GE ITC and is involved in developing solutions across imaging, maternal health, critical care, surgery and other areas. Solutions for the global market, as well as India/Emerging Market are developed here. We got an overview of these solutions from Shyam Rajan, CTO, GE Healthcare India.
A new latest PET/MRI scanner was on display (IMAGE). This scanner can simultaneously carry out the PET and MRI scans of a patient. A low-cost, award winning CT scanner was also showcased, specifically targeted for the developing markets, where cost and space are big issues.
Some of the other technology areas on display included:
Transportation – Diesel Locomotives, Fleet Management, Marine Engines
Energy – Oil & Gas, Wind Power
Gas Turbine Power Generation, Electricity Distribution, Smart Grids
It is very interesting to note the diverse engineering and technology areas that GE is involved in. They are addressing the core problems in energy, transportation and healthcare. It was good visiting these various solution areas and learning more about the solutions and tech challenges involved. The kinds of problems being addressed include machine design, modeling & simulation, advanced materials, hi-tech manufacturing, data analytics, big-data, software programming, signal/image processing, structural design, electronics control systems, and many more.
I would have liked to see more of the aircraft engine technology on display. Unfortunately (I guess due to IP/competitive restrictions) couldn’t see a lot in this area.
I also got a chance to interact with Sukla Chandra General Manager, GE Global Research, Bangalore Director-Legal, Patents & Analytics Centre of Excellence. Patents are a big focus area for GE, and Sukla’s team is responsible for providing strategic IP support to GE Global Research and several other GE businesses. In addition the patents center, Sukla also co-leads the GE Women’s Network Initiatives for India. The patents legacy of GE goes all the way back to the founder, Thomas Edison (who is credited with more than 1000 patents).
As part of the Tech Mela Event, GE released an info-graphic on their work in India (good summary): http://www.slideshare.net/GE_India/ge-reiterates-its-commitment-to-design-make-in-india-52449008
(I wrote this article in the The News Minute on October 13, 2014. I am reproducing the article here, on my blog).
The Nobel Prize is considered as the pinnacle of recognition in sciences. They are awarded in three categories: Physiology or Medicine, Physics, and Chemistry. From a common man’s perspective, these science category prizes are often awarded for some esoteric areas of research. Areas of research which are very important and path-breaking, but something that a common man cannot easily relate to. This year though, it was different.
All three prizes were awarded for work that has tremendous practical significance and immediate real world benefits.
The ‘Internal Brain GPS’ system
Have you wondered how some people have an innate sense of ‘direction’? Well turns out, we have some kind of an ‘internal GPS’ system in our brains. Research has identified specific nerve cells: ‘place cells’ and ‘grid cells’, which are located in the hippocampus area of the brain. These cells help in determining our ‘orientation’ and ‘position’ in space, and help in navigation.
For their pioneering work in this area, the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was jointly awarded to John O´Keefe, and the husband & wife team of May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser. It is interesting that O’Keefe’s work on the ‘place cells’ was done in the early 1970s, while the Mosers’ work was done in the last decade.
To quote from the Nobel Prize Press Release, “The discovery of the brain’s positioning system represents a paradigm shift in our understanding of how ensembles of specialized cells work together to execute higher cognitive functions. It has opened new avenues for understanding other cognitive processes, such as memory, thinking and planning.”
From ‘Microscopy’ to ‘Nanoscopy’
For over 125 years, the limit of the optical microscope has been set by Abbe’s law , which implies that we cannot magnify objects that are smaller than half the wavelength of light (400 nano-meters). Viruses, cell components, protein molecules are much smaller than this size. Until recently, the only way to ‘look’ at these objects was via electron microscopes. However, unlike optical microscopes, electron microscopes have limitations. One of the biggest ones (as far as micro-biology is concerned) is that they cannot observe ‘living’ cells and interacting molecules.
The pioneering work of the 2014 Nobel laureates in chemistry has helped in working around this optical microscope limit, and opening up the world of ‘nanoscopy’. Two separate principles were awarded, but both have one commonality. They work by using ‘fluorescent’ molecules. Stefan Hall developed the system of ‘STED’ (stimulated emission depletion) microscopy in 2000. Here, two laser beams are utilized; one stimulates fluorescent molecules to glow, another cancels out all fluorescence except for that in a nanometre-sized volume. Scanning over the sample can then yield an image that is better than the Abbelimit.
Eric Betzig and William Moerner, working independently of Stefan Hall worked on the ‘single-molecule microscopy’ method. The method tries to turn on the fluorescence of individual molecules on and off. The same area is imaged multiple times, and a composite processed image delivers a resolution much better than that dictated by the Abbe’s limit.
The LED Lighting Revolution
I am sure everyone has seen a Blue/White light emitting diode (LED light. These are getting increasingly popular over the past few years. LEDs are revolutionizing lighting and deliver over 90% electricity savings over conventional incandescent lights. They can also last over 100 times longer. Today, close to 25% of world’s electricity consumption is used for lighting. Over the next few years, LED lights have the potential of driving down world’s electricity demands by up to 20%!
Red and Yellow LED lights have been around for over 40 years. To produce white LED, we need to mix the Red and Yellow LED light, with a Blue LED light. Hence the need for a Blue LED light. Theoretically, building a Blue LED seemed straight forward, but practically it took over 30 years to come up with a process to produce a diode that can emit blue light.
Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work in the early 1990s that produced bright blue light beams from specialized semi-conductors. Over the past 2 decades, further development has driven down the cost of the blue and white LEDs significantly and the prices continue to fall.
If you want to understand these research areas better, I would recommend the Nobel Prize website, as well as these terrific podcasts from Scientific American: http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/science-talk/
Recently finished reading this brilliant, fascinating, (and at times) depressing book. Highly recommended. This book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011.
#Cancer is a tough topic, across many dimensions. The author Oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee presents a detailed journey of our understanding of this disease (or a collection of diseases), going back 4000 years. There is good amount of technical details about cancer, its diagnosis and treatment…but explained beautifully so that a non-medical professional can understand it quite well.
The first few chapters read like an interesting history novel. The concluding chapters delve into genetics and core understanding of what is going on internally, inside the cell, inside the DNA.
It is amazing how our understanding has changed and improved over the past few decades. But there is a long way to go. The sobering truth is that we still don’t understand many things in this area.
Germany is the world leader in Solar Power.
Came across this interesting article from Reuters about Germany’s Solar Power Record: “Germany sets new solar power record, institute says”
This Friday and Saturday, when sunlight was quite good, Germany generated 22 GW (1 GW or Giga Watt = 1,000 Mega Watt) of solar power for a few hours in the afternoon! That is nearly 50% of its power requirements (note requirements on weekends are less, since factories and offices are closed). Still this is quite a milestone! For comparison, the biggest power consuming state in India, Maharashtra consumes about 15 GW of power.
Came across quite a few interesting data points from the article:
– Germany generates about 4% of its total electricity needs annually via solar power.
– Total renewable energy generation is 20% of its total needs.
– Total installed capacity of Solar Power in Germany is nearly half of the installed capacity in the whole world.
– Germany added 7.5 GW of installed power generation capacity in 2012 and 1.8 GW more in the first quarter for a total of 26 GW capacity.
– Germany has a total installed solar power capacity of 24 GW
– From the article: “Utilities and consumer groups have complained the FIT for solar power adds about 2 cents per kilowatt/hour on top of electricity prices in Germany that are already among the highest in the world with consumers paying about 23 cents per kw/h.”
– But the solar power costs might come down as photo-voltaics become cheaper each year.
Do read the full article here and also visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_power_in_Germany for more details.
Some quick implications for India
India has lot more hours and months of sun as compared to Germany. Cost of photo-voltaics is coming down, making solar power more competitive. Solar power seems a lot more attractive renewable energy option, as compared to wind. Gujarat has taken the lead in installing solar power. Maharashtra, Karnataka and other states are also setting up solar fields, but the progress is slow.
India needs more policy focus and better execution to make solar power a successful reality.
Currently, China is the world’s major exporter of photo-voltaic cells. India needs to expand production of photo-voltaics. Similarly, other new related areas such as concentrated photo-voltaics (CPV) should also explored.
It is worth noting that Solar Power (or for that matter, any renewable energy source) is not a panacea for energy requirements… at least definitely not in the coming decade. Even in Germany today, Solar Power contributes single digit percentages annually of the total energy requirements. Thus, India will still need to expand its electricity production from conventional and nuclear power sources. Still, in an energy starved India, 10% renewable solar power in a decade, with no dependence on foreign fuel, would be a great step.