The Fusion Man: Dr. Biswanath Sarkar

With achievements that are sky high and a vision that is even higher, Dr. Biswanath Sarkar addressed a crowd of more than 600 students as well as professors in the BBA hall as the Golden Jubilee guest lecturer.

Currently working on a project on fusion energy in the Institute of Plasma Research, the eminent personality took his valuable time out to present a lecture for the NITR junta and inspire the mass. Team MM managed to catch up with him after his lecture and here is what the “fusion man” had to say.

MM: “Fusion power for mankind”. What is India’s status on this subject?
BS: India is doing well on this part. Presently, there are two lines of action for this: One is the international collaboration i.e. the ITER project which is the front end of fusion power right now. As India is offers 10% contribution to technology, we are offering nine packages which are engineering challenges. So, we are learning exhaustive engineering. Institute of Plasma Research, Gandhinagar is the mother agency. We are preparing large superconducting magnets and diverters are in the process of learning new technology from this collaboration.

MM: What are the short-term and long-term goals of ITER program?
BS: ITER program has very specific objectives and the short term and long term goals are very clear. The first objective is to demonstrate that the technologies that have been developed in this scale, performs. It shows the right performance in terms of the systems and sub-systems that have been made. It is very complicated to explain the entire process involved.
Second objective is to demonstrate that we get the right kind of Q-factor, which is the input and output power. ITER has Q equal to 10 i.e. when we supply 5MW, we get 500MW. We are not utilizing that for generation of electricity. The long term objective is to obtain Q=10 and efficient power conversion. The long term objective is also to see that the Tritium Blanket Module technologies that some of the domestic agencies are making, works. That is, we will be able to breed Tritium. Once that is there, only then we can have a sustained fusion reaction.

MM: What are the raw materials that are being utilized for the purpose of nuclear fusion by the ITER programme?
BS: Raw material used are Deuterium and Tritium. Tritium, for the first time, has to be procured. We are seven partners right now: US, Europe, Russia, India, China, Japan and South Korea. Out of this, one has to decide who can provide the initial material. Naturally, some of the Tritium reserves are found in Canada, South Korea and US. But, most of the supplies are from the remains of the nuclear fission reaction. Whoever makes the most, can negotiate. The procurement is not very clear, and is under political consideration.

MM: Once the thermo-nuclear power is produced, what are the commercial and mainstream challenges?
BS: Yes, that is a very big challenge. Whether we are using fossil or nuclear fuels, ultimately we have to use the already established processes of power generation. But, the main challenge is to convert that nuclear energy to heat. Today, in ITER, after Tritium Blanket Module is established and extraction of heat is successful, then we can setup fusion reactor power plants. Interestingly, the path that is being taken by almost all the nations is same: they are demonstrating their technologies. With ITER, the advantage is that, we are giving ten percent of the technologies, but can access the technologies of the partnering nations as well.

MM: What prompted you to take up the research in this field?
BS: (laughs) I wanted to become an IAS Officer. I am from Allahabad University and topped there. I even qualified for the IAS exam. In the toppers’ meet, S.K. Joshi, one of the members of the Planning Commission and DST, was the director of NCL. During my MSc, I had published a paper which was considered to be very rare. My paper was in international journal. So, I realized that I had a knack for research. I wanted to join IAS and after a stint, return to research. But, he persuaded me to take up a lucrative work on quantum hall effect at NPL. When I went there, I found that it is very interesting and that time I didn’t have a good understanding on career. I never tried to go abroad. I worked in MIT but I came back. I worked in Japan in National Institute of Fusion Science but I came back again. As I had done everything from scratch, it prompted me to do research and slowly developed interest in it. When this project in NPL started, I took it because it was a new start like ITER. Now I find that whatever you think, you can do it even though there will be a lot of obstacles in your way.

It happened first by chance and then by interest. After my PhD I went abroad and then came back and joined NPL to do research in NMR magnets. Then midway, I went to MIT and now I am in IPS for 20 years. The research field is very interesting if you get the right thread. I’ve seen a lot of bitterness in research. I had to change my topic while I was doing PhD after 4 years. I met Prof. S.K Sarangi and he advised me to change it.

MM: How has your journey been at Institute of Plasma Research?

BS: Excellent! I started from some level of scientist and then I reached quite high. With the ITER programme, I became the project manager. I never thought of leaving the organisation after I joined. I work 18 to 20 hours and a minimum of 12 hours every day, even on Saturdays and sometimes on Sundays. The problem is I do all the administrative work at the day time so I tell my students and everyone to meet me after 7 or 8. And on Fridays, I stay up till 2 as we start discussing at 11 and we enjoy discussing. It’s a good journey. And I feel like I will be able to deliver what I have to people.

MM: What are the significant projects being undertaken by the institute of plasma research?
BS: There are many. Plasma research has four activities with one of them being ITER. We are in the planned programme. IPR is divided into three activities- one is the core reactor technology where I am the chairman. So apart from ITER, this is another responsibility in which there are 7 associated technologies. There is TBM, fuel cycle, materials, neurotronics, which is one of the most important technologies, and some experiments which have a basic nature of plasma but has an impact on RnD. This institute is in Guwahati and it belongs to IPR and I manage the institute. Then industrially we have a lot of projects. They’re called Felicitation centre for industrial Plasma Technology. There is a SST-1 and SS-2 programme. There is a big group of basic plasma physics who are working on the theoretical work and there are small experimental works which go on to support the main experiment. Apart from ITER, we do not have any sanctioned big project by the government.

MM: What was your first successful project at IPR?
BS: The first responsibility that I had was to establish India’s Largest Cryogenic facility and that I did on time. As I said, I used to sleep at IPR and for that I made a room for me.

MM: At the beginning of the lecture, you said you do not want to use the work “nuclear”. Why so?
BS: The word “nuclear” makes things very sensitive. When even I was deciding the topic with my teacher, I do not want to use the word “nuclear”. The nature of this project, although it is a nuclear process, does not really call for a nuclear kind of environment. Secondly, ITER stood for International Thermonuclear Reactor. This thermonuclear word was a big opposition in France and Japan. And hence everyone decided to call it ITER and so now it is a word. In Latin, it means “the way”. When I say it is environmentally clear and in the same breath if I say the word “nuclear” it does not add up.

MM: Who is your role model in life?   
BS: Professor Sarangi. In the 90s when I changed my topic, he had come to take a viva in Delhi. I went to receive him at the airport. That was the first time when I met him. He is simple but has an eye for things. Even when he calls me in the middle of the night, I receive his calls. I take only his calls when I am on International roaming irrespective of the meetings I am in. I even took his call during a planning commission meeting. I have met several people in my life but I see him in a different way. This campus is an example of his vision. Professor S.K Joshi is also one of my role models. There was another person in IPR with whom I had joined the institute, Prof Y.C Saxena. I learnt a lot from him from an administrative point of view. His reflections can be seen in me. I follow these people very strongly.

MM: How do you feel about our campus?
BS: I had seen this campus when it was nothing and then I had seen the campus when it had started being formed. I came here in 2011. Now, on the present date I took a tour with the Director. His visions are excellent.

MM: Your presence has been a real inspiration for the people in the campus. Do you have any words of wisdom for the NITR junta?
BS: I’ve already welcomed you to the world of fusion. Basically, India is limited with man power. If a big programme has to sustain, then people like you have to step up. The engineering institutes are not aligned with respect to our programmes. Today you are inspired by fusion and you do something but tomorrow you have to find a job and if there is no opportunity for you for a career then the person following you will diverge. Hence, it is very important that there is synchronisation of academics with work prospects.
The only message I will like to give to the readers is in my dictionary I have removed the phrase “I don’t know”. In today’s world we have everything at our finger tips. I can’t take “I don’t know” for an answer. Always say “I will know”.