Two other interesting people were among the speakers: Punit Singh and U. Ravikumar. Punit is probably one of the leading designers for micro-hydro systems in the world right now. With a PhD in turbine design from the University of Karlsruhe, he has been designing, installing and commissioning micro-hydro systems for 3-4 years now. From a 100 KW system in a tea factory in Darjeeling to a 150 W ‘pico’ hydro in Agumbe, he has quite literally done them all. He narrated his experiences with providing clean and perennial energy in places where no electric company will dare lay a wire, especially in the impoverished districts of Koraput and Kalahandi in Orissa. I had been to those installations in Orissa, and Punit is quite a demi-god in Bodamanjari(Koraput). Karlapat(Kalahandi) ran into too many issues, for unknown reasons or pure bad luck.
The following picture is of the Agumbe system that Punit and I jointly commissioned along with an excellent mechanic, whose name I forget. He is at the leading edge of turbine design in the world at this scale, and with a firm view to serve society.
U. Ravikumar is a versatile person with innovations in many areas, rainwater harvesting, innovative toilet designs which are useful in dry areas (and everywhere else as well!), and clean cooking alternatives for rural homes. His stove, which provides one of the cleanest solutions for burning wood, is a stunning application of mechanical engineering and thermodynamics.
These people were excellent examples that you can do extremely good engineering (unlike our Infy, TCS crowd) while attempting to solve everyday problems that society faces. There is always a weak argument that some academics put forward about the lack of funding. Ravikumar is a good example that commitment is paramount, and other problems usually solve themselves if what you want to do is clear in your mind. There are still many open problems in micro-hydro for instance: lack of cheap Electronic Load Controllers, efficient generators that work at sub 10KW range, which can be made out of off-the-shelf components (The blue thing below the orange basket in the micro-hydro photo is an induction motor, gives an efficiency of around 40-50%) and these are extremely challenging problems that find no takers.
Finally, round up of interesting news for the past few weeks. Islam has taken over Christianity as the dominant religion, Urban populations will exceed rural ones for the first time in history, Syria has been accused of interfering with Lebanon’s internal affairs resulting in a lack of a government there, Somalia’s umpteenth government is on the verge of collapsing (calling Somalia a country is giving it too much. It seems to be a wasteland surrounded by countries), Sudan is still blocking UN peacekeeping missions from entering (while civilians are dying wholesale), violence in Kenya is not looking like it wants to stop, Zimbabwe has hit 100,000% inflation (yes, 1 lakh percent!!), banks are still collapsing all over, Iraq until yesterday was being bombed in the south by Shi’ite militants and in the north by Turkish planes trying to flush out Kurdish rebels, Ecuador almost went to war against Cambodia, farmers in Argentina have stopped sending produce outside the villages (bad thing since it is the largest exporter of soy, and big exporter of beef and wheat), no need to talk about Tibet, children as young as 7 in South African schools play a game called ‘rape me, rape me’ simulating sexual attacks ( SA is the unofficial ‘rape capital’ of the world), Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are at it again, and oil prices fell to 102$ a barrel. Thank God for little mercies in these interesting times.