'Material'izing His Research Intrigue: Rishabh Kundu

'Material'izing His Research Intrigue: Rishabh Kundu

During research, you will face many hurdles. There would be times when you would want to give up. However, be determined and persistent; things will fall in line gradually.

Success comes to those who work persistently for it. Budding researcher Rishabh Kundu, a final year undergraduate from the Department of Ceramic Engineering, has put out all the stops to achieve what he envisions in his field of interest. Going down the road less taken and exploring the prospects in material science and ceramics, he acquired a wide range of experience interning at IIT Kanpur and IIT Bombay. Already having five publications in esteemed international journals under his name, he continues to work his way up to prosperity.

Research Career of Rishabh Kundu:

Below is an excerpt from the interview. Read the article to know more about his endeavours and achievements in the field of research.

Monday Morning: What was your initial perception of the branch and the facilities in the department? Was ceramic a subject of your interest from the start?

Rishabh Kundu: My interest in Engineering can be traced back to my schooling days. I remember instances where my father used to repair households despite reaching out to technicians. So, observing him from a very early stage enlightened me with the spirit of problem-solving, and eventually, I was attracted not to any specific discipline but Engineering. During my childhood, our computer faced RAM issues very often, and the Engineer resolved those issues by pulling out RAM and rubbing an eraser over the joining pins made of copper. There my curiosity grew, that why it is made of copper, not any other material?! During that time, as we didn't have easy internet access, I searched about it on Britannica encyclopedia and was introduced to the world of materials. I was fascinated by it that I printed out the material's sheet of a space shuttle mission to paste inside my studying room. Accordingly, I got inclined towards Materials and Engineering.

Initially, I wanted to opt for the Department of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering but unfortunately could not get through. However, I never regret ending up with Ceramic Engineering! The first impression of my branch was very positive. I can recollect memories of when we were taken from BBA to our department for the first time by our faculty advisor Prof. Sunipa Bhattacharyya, followed by an interaction with several professors and a short tour of our department building. So, my perception regarding my branch has been positive right from the beginning.

(Pic: Receiving the Academic Excellence Award for the Second Year)

MM: You have indulged yourself almost entirely in research. What drives you towards researching rather than eyeing a job at a core company?

RK: I come from a family of businessmen. Starting from my grandfather, father to paternal and maternal uncles, everyone is connected to a business. Unlike the common stereotype prevailing in Indian families to take up the science stream, my parents asked me to take commerce to follow up on the business part. However, that bit never interested me, and I took up science and started digging deep into it, which further enlightened me to choose a research path. It is absolutely fine if someone opts for a job after graduation, but there ought to be job creators as well, and I have always wanted to go hands in along the latter path! I guess the business part of the family has an enormous influence in shaping this view.

MM: During your 2nd year, you embarked on a research internship at IIT Kanpur. Walk us through the application procedure and area of research there.

RK: Being a sophomore, I was not eligible to apply for the SURGE program at IIT Kanpur, as it is only open to pre-final year students. So, before my 2nd-year summer internship period, I contacted five professors, namely, Prof. Soobhankar Pati (IITBBS), Prof. Prabeer Barpanda (IISc Bangalore), Prof. Parag Bhargava (IITB), Prof. Kantesh Balani (IITK), and Prof. Anshu Gaur (IITK). After getting a positive response from three of them, I chose to go with Prof. Kantesh Balani. Under his tutelage, I worked on Ultra-High Temperature Ceramics, a particular class of ceramics, sustainable to temperatures of greater than 3000 degree Celsius. A space shuttle’s heat shield is very much prone to oxidation when re-entering into the earth's atmosphere because of the friction and other forces at play. This particular class of ceramics is a potential material to counter such issues, especially for the buzzing re-usable and hypersonic aerospace vehicles. So, I looked into the oxidation bit of it at a deficient and high oxygen partial pressure.

Along with that, I was also working on another project on an automated bio-tribometer. We looked at the tribology of 2 kinds of materials systems, Ti6Al4V and Stainless Steel 304. Primarily, we focused on changing the reciprocating path, e.g., a typical tribology experiment follows a linear reciprocation or a ball rotating at high speed on the material of interest, but we did it with four reciprocating tracks- linear, square, circular, eight/butterfly-shape and studied the variation while keeping other influential variables constant.

Also, I had an excellent relationship with the PhD scholars of IITK. I remember Ms Shipra Bajpai, who once had a problem with her materials system (UHTCs). Following my discussion with her, we planned a series of experiments and underwent a pseudo collaboration project because of my limited time. So, she kept on doing experiments, and the analysis part was done together. Hence, I completed a total of 3 projects from IITK.

MM: Stretching your legacy, you fetched the winter research internship at IIT Bombay during your pre-final year. What fields did you work in as a research intern? Brief on the project and overall experience.

RK: This time, I was working under Prof. Parag Bhargava at IIT Bombay. He is famous for commercializing and rapid prototyping, which means that his research interests are not solely for academic purposes but also for manufacturing products that you can sell in the market, which is a very lengthy process. TATA has established a centre for development and research in IITB, which conferred Prof. Bhargava to work on Silver paste, and I worked on a tiny aspect of it (silver ink). Nowadays, breadboards are coming into the market with capacitors, resistors and other equipment to form a complete circuit (as toys with which children can play).

Prof. Bhargava thought of Silver pens where silver would be deposited on the paper to create circuits, thereby removing any limitations for the curious children playing with the aforementioned toys. It will be similar to the pens that we use daily, giving children scope of higher creativity! Initially, the flow property had some issues that I tried to resolve, and it is on the verge of commercialization. Apart from that, I was introduced to many centres of excellence, research scholars, professors, scientists, and BETIC, which I felt is the temple of innovation at IITB. I also witnessed screen printing of solar cells and visited Ants Ceramics; a company co-founded by Prof. Bhargava.

MM: What is your opinion about the exposure of research specifically for your branch in NIT Rourkela? Contrast the research facilities and techniques you observed in IITK and IITB to those in NITR.

RK: If I compare the two IITs I have been to, and our institute, some facilities like the ‘in-situ high-temperature characterisation facilities are present at NIT Rourkela but not at IIT Bombay. The laboratories at NITR are well equipped with equipment such as FESEM (field emission scanning microscope), DSC/TG, UV-Vis, FTIR, XRD, etcetera.

Although well equipped, NITR has all these facilities smaller in number and magnitude and aren’t maintained properly. IITs have the same equipment as well but a higher number of them. While we have just a single TEM (Transmission electron microscopy) that unfortunately is currently not working, they have 2-3 TEMs. Over here, the instrumentation availability and the centrality of it are limited. For example, if you want to get a XRD (X-Ray Powder Diffractometer) slot, you have to wait 15 days, but at IIT Kanpur, I got one slot in 20 minutes. So, the pace of research there is faster. One needs to be more patient and persistent over here.

Moreover, at IITs, postgraduate students are trained to run the facilities, and advanced users are free to use them without any supervision 24/7, which is terrific. Over here, things are limited by a lab assistant/expert’s presence and working hours (8 AM - 6.15 PM).

The aptitude and the novelty part of the research are comparable in both institutes. However, some very advanced facilities like molecular beam epitaxy and screen printing are not present at NIT-R. This shortfall may be attributed to the limited funding that NITR gets in comparison to IITs.

(Pic: With guests and core members of Mrittika 2019, conducted by ICS-NITR )

MM: You have worked on multiple research projects since your sophomore year. How did you get the initial encouragement from your professors and peers?

RK: Talking about the peer aspect, I guess most of my peers have always been interested in taking a job after their B.Tech. Very few are into research, and very few even came into Ceramic with an open mind but were instead willing to go somewhere else. That is something I feel is wrong. You should give your branch a shot and explore the prospects of your department first. If that doesn't work out, you can venture into analytics or try other options. That problem persists, so from the peers, the motivation part was low. However, some of my friends kept on pushing and encouraging me towards what I planned.

The professors always had an open mind towards my research. Every one of my faculty here, especially Prof. Swadesh Kumar Pratihar, Prof. Sumit Kumar Pal, Prof. Japes Bera, Prof. Santanu Bhattacharyya, Prof. Ritwik Sarkar, Prof. Shantanu Behera, all have been supportive of my research endeavours. Even when I was in my sophomore year, when professors usually consider you too young to go to a lab, they said that I could visit their labs, and together we could plan up something.

I would also like to mention Prof. Sanjoy Datta, one of the professors whose Physics-I classes I enjoyed the most during my first year. I worked under him during my first-year summer. That was a very minute thing done for my knowledge gain’s sake and was nothing like a ‘project’. He had suggested I go through some of the texts and Maths on first-principle calculations to have a strong foundation of materials science.

Teaching is much more than a mere job. I am delighted that many of my departmental faculties put a lot of effort into their teaching, which is why my interest in materials science increased exponentially. They never said no to any of my doubts or problems with any paper or whatever. I even remember that when I got my third-year German internship, some of my professors were genuinely happy about it, but unfortunately, I could not go due to the pandemic.

MM: Your research work at IIT Kanpur led you to bring out three publications. Elaborate on the work that went into it and the guidance you received from the professors and co-authors.

RK: The first highlight here is that after returning from IITK, my mother almost fainted on seeing me. I had lost 5 kgs because of the hectic work. But, no one forced me to undergo an arduous schedule. It was on me, and I wanted to give my maximum there and use all the offered facilities and embellishments.

I worked under Prof. Kantesh Balani, whom I consider one of the chief mentors in my career. He has always been very supportive, be it mentally or financially. He made out time from his busy schedule to see my progress on the work. Due to some documentation issues, I wasn't allotted a hostel at IITK, which had me freaked out and put me into a dilemma about whether I would have to hire a hotel. That time Prof. Balani personally called the Associate Dean of Hall Affairs there and asked to accommodate me in one of the hostels. I was also invited to a lot of parties that he and his students arranged on thesis defences. He even threw a grand party at the end in my honour, and for the work I had done.

(Pic: With Prof. Kantesh Balani’s group of researchers)

Regarding my co-authors, Ms Rubia Hassan, Ms Shipra Bajpai and Ms Chinmayee Nayak, they were as active and encouraging as I was. There were nights we didn't go to our rooms at all, working, drafting manuscripts and polishing samples. They all helped me in every way they could.

MM: What were the challenges you faced in publishing those journals?

RK: The first publication of mine on "Oxidation behaviour of coarse and fine SiC reinforced ZrB2 at re-entry and atmospheric oxygen pressures" is in 'Ceramics International', and it is a good journal. Three journals rejected it: Scripta Materialia, Journal of the European Ceramic Society, Materials Science and Engineering: A. Every rejection came with a set of comments. We had to work on those comments to make sure we didn't face the same problem in future.

In the second manuscript, "Tribological properties of SS 304 and Ti6Al4V using four reciprocating geometries", we didn't face any rejection, and it was a direct acceptance. Still, it went through an exceptionally long review period. We submitted it in April 2020, and it got published recently in January 2021.

The third publication, "Effect of B4C reinforcement on microstructure, residual stress, toughening and scratch-resistance of (Hf, Zr)B2 ceramics", is in 'Materials Science and Engineering: A’ and is a brilliant journal. That was quick (though the working part took about a year), and the reviewer comments received were very critical. We worked on the comments and furbished the journal.

There were many more hurdles to the publication, like Prof. Balani is very critical of the manuscripts he is communicating, so we used to get many edits from his side before we communicated to journals that improved the quality further. My first manuscript had 15-20 edits from him. He told us to edit things like the scientific part of a matter which was not up to the mark, or the figures had to be made proper. Those may sound very harsh right now, but those improved the quality of your manuscript, and you get less severe comments from the reviewers and get to learn a lot of things.

MM: Shed some light on your recent publication under the guidance of Prof. Japes Bera.

RK: My recent publication with Mr Kousik Polley and Prof. Japes Bera is on "Adsorption and sunlight-induced photocatalytic degradation of methyl blue by BaFe12 O19 ferrite particles synthesised through co-precipitation method". I have been working with Prof. Bera since my sophomore year. Because of academic commitment to my courses and other laboratory work, limited availability of characterisation facilities, and the summer and winter internships, the work over here got delayed, and the publication came out late. I have been working on three projects with him, and we are expecting one more publication on sintering kinetics of BaFe12O19 very soon. All three projects were running parallel, and during the lockdown, we decided to communicate one which was in good shape. All the data was in the raw form, and we had to curate it and then draft the manuscript. Prof. Bera was also critical of the manuscripts, suggested many edits that we worked on, and finally communicated.

MM: Your blog 'Ceramics and Glasses' brings out some excellent content with interactive visual graphics. What was the inspiration behind it, and how do you think of improvising it further?

RK: As I mentioned, people don't come into ceramic engineering or materials engineering with an open mind because of many factors like peer pressure, societal thoughts, conventional ideology. I want to express through the blog the importance of materials science, especially ceramic and glasses, to the general public. In the blog, I explain critical things in a very simplified way to something that people can relate to and possibly connect to. I am trying to un-fill full cups.

For branches like Computer Science or Electrical, they have those factors like coding and web development which are very popular and motivates youngsters. But, for our department, we don't have such promoters. I wanted to start somewhere, which is also the point why we have the NITR ICS. I am delighted to see that the blog, the clubs and my interaction with the juniors has led them to take an active interest in material science. I don't want to make them biased, but only provide them with exposure to the world of material science and show how important and relevant it is. They can then decide on what to do!

I invite professors, scientists, PhD scholars, and even student enthusiasts worldwide to contribute to my blog. This is because I am not an omniscient but just a 'hungry and foolish' researcher. Experts work on particular things, and they can explain complex bits in simplified language. I will keep writing on the blog and keep elaborating things that are appealing to the public and ask professors to contribute through my masters and PhD. The future plan of the blog is to keep it active and have more contributors.

(Pic: Igniting the young minds at an Aerospace Materials Workshop conducted by Leo)

MM: What is the motivation behind being a 'big advocate' of the Circular Economy? How does your current research work specialise in realising the ambition?

RK: For this, I would like to explain a bit about the linear and circular economy. Suppose we frequently change laptops and cell phones in 2-4 years. Suppose we can extract the raw materials from the out-of-service product and use it in making new products or maybe refurbish the product that one is rejecting according to the acceptable standards, and others can use those. In that case, we are closing the loop, i.e., using -> recycling-> reusing rather than throwing. This is the basic concept of ‘circular economy. It is along the lines of sustainability. For example, there is limited recycling of beneficial products such as aluminium cans. Thus, I have planned to be the advocate of the circular economy because our earth has limited resources, and gradually these will be exhausted maybe within a century or more, but they surely will. So, to avoid such circumstances and reduce the damages, we can design materials in such a way that can be reused later, leading to a sustainable environment, which will also benefit nature. This is my direction of research for now as well.

Concerning the current research and latest publication, I have, i.e., on the adsorption and photocatalytic degradation of methyl blue (a dye used in multiple places). Methyl blue, a common dye, is usually disposed of in the water bodies and collecting it from there is an arduous task. To overcome this difficulty, we have shown how BeFe12O19 (BaM) hexagonal ferrite can be effectively reused after going through some processes and recycled.

Along with that, I am also working on a project on “alumina crucibles”, which includes enhancing the life-cycle of alumina crucibles leading to a decrease in the net usage of the resources for the long term.

At IIT Bombay, apart from my project, I was exposed to ‘screen printing of solar cells, and solar cells are considered as the basics of renewable resources. So, these three parts have added to the idea of sustainability in my research.

MM: How do you master a balance between academics, research, and extracurricular activities considering your involvement in NIT-RKL ICS, Hourglass Toastmaster international, and Rotaract?

RK: In my fresher year, I joined Rotaract as I was attached to social servicing from my school days and Hourglass, where I met some of the best seniors who supported me in my endeavours. It was a little hectic in the first year, and I wasn’t doing much good in academics; also, I can say that in that period, I couldn’t manage the academics section but was happy with the extra-curricular activities as the research part hadn’t started till then. However, when I came into my sophomore year, I decided to schedule and give time according to the priorities. Thus, I used to prioritise academics before the exams and be very observant in the classes. Talking about the extra-curricular activities, I don’t think one needs to give extra effort for that as you already like doing it, and it happens naturally. Researching was always on-going in the background since my sophomore year.

(Pic: Club Officers Training Program (COTP) Toastmaster International, Infosys Bhubaneswar)

MM: What are your plans post-graduation? What are the areas you would like to research in future?

RK: After graduation, I have planned to pursue a Master of Science, and I have already applied to a few ambitious colleges and have heard back from some of them. I will be working on sustainable materials during my M.Sc., and then I will be applying for a PhD. The point of bifurcating my graduate education, i.e., from a Master’s degree to a PhD, is because I want to gain diverse experiences, visit various laboratories, meet more people, and know-how they work and solve various problems. We all know India is a developing country, and when I go to a developed country, I can learn their methodologies and approaches for solving real-life problems. I want to gain experience from a practical point of view and master those skills.

Ultimately, I want to return to India and focus on indigenous product development in India while teaching as a professor.

MM: Enlighten our readers with the templates they should follow to succeed in the field of research.

RK:

During research, you will face many hurdles. There would be times when you would want to give up and prefer other things over it. However, I would suggest you be persistent. If you feel disheartened and lose innovation and persistence, look up to the names of your hostels, Homi Bhabha, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, CV Raman, Satish Dhawan, Vikram Sarabhai, these were people who consistently worked on problems because they didn’t agree with the status quo of their times and they altered it, I don’t see why anyone of us cannot do the same. Be persistent, be curious and enjoy what you do; all other things will fall into line.

Monday morning wishes Rishabh Kundu all the best for his upcoming ventures and believes that he sets an example for all the young researchers at NIT Rourkela.

You can reach out to Rishabh Kundu over mail at- kundurishabh@gmail.com

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