This IIT-M-incubated startup could help India make SpaceX-like reusable space rockets

This IIT-M-incubated startup could help India make SpaceX-like reusable space rockets

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When Ganesh Babu left for lunch on a cool October day final yr, he didn’t know that the chemical substances he left behind in a beaker might doubtlessly take India nearer to its rising house ambitions.

Ganesh had been working to create a particular set of supplies for a while, giving up in frustration at one level–solely to choose up the problem once more. And as he returned to his lab on the IIT-Madras after a satisfying meal of rice, sambar and a few sauteed greens final October, he wasn’t anticipating a lot. 

“I believed I must wash the beakers but once more… after one other failed experiment,” says Ganesh, Founder and CEO of CeraTattva InnoTech Non-public Restricted. He was pleasantly stunned to seek out that this specific mixture of chemical substances had labored. Ganesh nonetheless washed the beaker although–this time to redo the experiment and validate his findings. 

However what are these particular supplies and what’s their hyperlink to India’s house ambitions? Ganesh had a breakthrough in creating distinctive “preceramic precursors”—sure extremely adaptable supplies that may, in flip, produce merchandise that stand up to excessive circumstances. 

India has been recognized for environment friendly and cost-effective house launches however it doesn’t at present have the means to create reusable rockets that come again to earth after doing their job within the sky. This means will make its launches even cheaper. Simply final month, ISRO Chairman S Somanath mentioned at a press convention in Bengaluru that India needs to create reusable rockets for the world. 

One massive problem in creating rockets that may re-enter our ambiance is that they should stand up to a lot greater temperatures than those that go on a one-way ticket. 

That is the place the preceramic precursors that Ganesh created are available. These distinctive chemical formulations, made utilizing polymer-derived know-how, are liquid, which provides them three distinct benefits over ones made utilizing standard powder know-how (stable). 

One, the manufacturing prices are a lot decrease. As an illustration, you would wish temperatures of 1,800-2,000 diploma centigrade to make silicon carbide ceramic utilizing powder know-how. Nevertheless, to make the identical utilizing the polymer know-how, you don’t must transcend 1,300-degree centigrade, in response to Ganesh.

Two, it’s extraordinarily troublesome to make advanced shapes, similar to these utilized in rockets, utilizing powder know-how. And three, merchandise comprised of the powder know-how don’t retain their homogeneity in addition to these comprised of the liquid formulations. Merely put, homogeneity means the standard of the product created is constant all through. These attributes give the preceramic precursors a number of makes use of not simply in house launches but additionally in different strategic sectors like defence and nuclear vitality. 

However there’s extra. With Ganesh’s breakthrough, he says CeraTattva is now the primary startup/non-public firm in India with the aptitude to make preceramic precursors which can be each non-silicon and non-oxide-based. 

The “non-silicon and non-oxide half” is essential as a result of that’s what offers the preceramic precursors created by Ganesh the potential to face up to excessive circumstances. “Non-oxide- and non-silicon-based precursors typically are very costly,” says Ravi Kumar, Co-founder, Chief Advisor and Advisor of CeraTattva. “No one typically works on these merely due to the required infrastructure and prices concerned… until they’ve a well-funded venture.”

CeraTattva has had a breakthrough in creating distinctive “preceramic precursors”—sure extremely adaptable supplies that may, in flip, produce merchandise that stand up to excessive circumstances. These merchandise can discover purposes in sectors together with aerospace and defence.

Ganesh says organisations like ISRO (Indian House Analysis Organisation) and DRDO (Defence Analysis and Improvement Organisation) at present have the aptitude to make silicon-based preceramic precursors to make non-oxide ceramics. “We’re enthusiastic about CeraTattva’s functionality to provide non-silicon-based preceramic precursors to make non-oxide ceramics,” he says. 

Although the staff is but to check its distinctive formulations on an industrial scale, it’s fairly assured that these will work when assessed. 

“We don’t have the aptitude to check past 1,600-degree centigrade, which is why we’re banking on organisations similar to ISRO and DRDO to validate our formulations,” says Ganesh, who factors out that NASA and different house businesses overseas have validated merchandise comprised of related preceramic precursors after rigorous testing.

“Since we’re in a position to develop that materials by polymer-derived know-how, then it’s a given this could additionally be capable of stand up to the reported greater temperatures,” says Ganesh.

Professor Vikram Jayaram, Dean, Supplies Engineering on the Indian Institute of Science (IISC), says that polymer-derived ceramics have proven a number of promise. The problem for a startup, he says, could be to seek out a cheap approach for utilizing the preceramic precursors. However he’s fast to level out that if the fabric is nice and the appliance strategic, then price will probably be a secondary issue.

The holy grail

The breakthrough in creating the preceramic precursors might have been sudden however it was solely potential after an extended, laborious journey that started over 20 years in the past. 

CeraTattva’s Ravi obtained to learn about precursor-derived ceramics in 2001 when he went to do his PhD in Germany. “The lab I labored at had been pioneers on this discipline and had been doing a little nice work,” he says.

Whereas doing his PhD and postdoctoral programme, he realised that this discipline required the approaching collectively of consultants in chemistry, thermodynamics and supplies science and engineering.

This was the rationale why it wasn’t simple for him to start out work on this know-how when he returned to India six years after doing his PhD and post-doctoral analysis in precursor-derived ceramics. It took him four-five years to arrange a lab solely for precursor-derived ceramics at IIT-M from scratch. 

“Most people who got here to the Division of Metallurgy weren’t chemists and this discipline is all about supplies and chemistry, to start with the place the engineering half comes solely later,” says Ravi. This pushed him to collaborate with the Vikram Sarabhai House Centre (VSSC) on some precursor-derived ceramics initiatives initially.

“My confidence to start out an organization grew solely after Ganesh joined the division,” says Ravi. “He got here with a Supplies-Chemistry background and had labored at VSSC and in an organization in an identical discipline.”

Ganesh joined his staff in 2018 after working in an organization within the polymer trade. Previous to this stint, he did his PhD at VSSC in polymer-derived ceramics. He was in search of to additional his information on this discipline and signed up for IIT-M’s post-doctoral fellowship to affix Ravi’s staff.

CeraTattva’s staff (from the left): Prof Ravi Kumar, Prof Hari Kumar, Dr Abha Bharti, Dr Raghunath Sharma and Dr Ganesh Babu

The correct spin

Whereas CeraTattva—co-founded by Ganesh, Ravi, Raghunath Sharma and Abha Bharti— is on the verge of manufacturing preceramic precursors on a big scale, it has additionally efficiently produced a machine to provide fibres utilizing centrifugal know-how. 

This machine was developed throughout the pandemic and required a number of “jugaad”—easy workarounds—as a result of non-availability of labs and equipment. “We had a water pump at residence. I eliminated it and took the motor out. As well as, I took some vessels from the kitchen, and ended up destroying them to make a crude set-up to make fibres,” says Ganesh, recalling the “scoldings” from his mom for the chaos and destruction of family articles. 

Because of the non-availability of chemical substances, Ganesh used melted sugar to spin fibres—much like how cotton sweet is made. He despatched a video of the method to Ravi to show that it was potential to make micron- and nano-sized fibres utilized in aerospace and biomedical industries, amongst others, with the know-how detailed in a analysis paper he had despatched. 

“Professor Ravi obtained me particular permission to enter the lab (at IIT Madras) throughout the lockdown to attempt the method with chemical substances and the crude set-up I had made,” says Ganesh. It labored simply effective, which led Ravi to shell out round Rs 1 lakh to transform the crude set-up to a small prototype.

As soon as they examined and validated it, the trio (Ganesh, Ravi and Raghunath) determined to patent this tools referred to as ‘Ultraspinner’ in October 2021. 


“The throughput in Ultraspinner is 1,000 instances that of the present know-how. In an hour of operation, Ultraspinner produces 240 grams of fibres and consumes solely 9.2 watt-hours of energy per each 1 gram of fibre,” says Raghunath. 

As well as, the Ultraspinner doesn’t require any excessive voltages to function. “The Ultraspinner is as secure and as simple to make use of as plugging in any electrical home equipment in your kitchen similar to a blender or fridge,” explains Abha.

CeraTattva hopes to promote the essential mannequin of Ultaspinner for Rs 10 lakh, which is cheaper than the essential mannequin of the normal electrospinner, which prices about Rs 12 lakh.

Fibres produced by Ultraspinner at a fraction of the fee and time taken by the normal electrospinning technique

Functions of the innovation

Amongst all of the purposes of CeraTattva’s improvements, the staff is most excited in regards to the possibilities of their distinctive formulations and fibre-making capabilities being utilized in India’s reusable launch autos someday sooner or later.

“Re-entry is a vital and intensely troublesome part of an orbital or interplanetary journey for the car elements which can be affected by extraordinarily excessive thermal fluxes introduced on by resistance towards the ambiance,” says Raghunath. Thermal flux is the speed of warmth vitality that passes by a floor.

Raghunath explains that the ultra-high temperature ceramics, for instance, can additional push the high-temperature utilization to 2000-3100 diploma centigrade given their sturdy mechanical power, chemical inertness and configurational stability.

ISRO has expressed curiosity in buying some non-oxide- and non-silicon-based preceramic precursors from the startup. Ravi says this opens up an enormous alternative for CeraTattva as there’s no different industrial vendor within the nation that may provide these distinctive formulations. 

“Outdoors of the nation, no vendor will provide it to India even when they’re manufacturing due to the strategic nature of those supplies,” explains Ravi. “We consider the supplies we offer will assist India turn into strategically self-reliant.” 

IISC’s Prof Vikram says ISRO contemplating such improvements is a big step. “Whether or not ISRO is profitable or not (when it comes to getting the top merchandise proper) is just not straight essential at this level. The purpose is that they appear to be prepared to spend money on a course of essential to discover the usefulness of those supplies,” he says.

The way in which ahead

CeraTattva, which has obtained a seed quantity of Rs 10 lakh from IIT-M, is trying to elevate extra funds to arrange a facility for large-scale manufacturing of its preceramic precursors.

The Chennai-based startup says it’s in talks with a couple of buyers who’ve proven curiosity in its improvements.

Ravi says their startup’s distinctive formulations and the potential know-how to make lengthy ceramic filaments/fibres will assist speed up the nation’s strategic programmes together with the event of hypersonic missiles.

“If India needs to be self-reliant, this needs to be one of many first issues they need to concentrate on,” says Ravi.“Startups typically don’t get into supplies growth programmes. We have to succeed in order that it encourages different related startups to return up in India.”

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