Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Following NASA

It’s not the fever or the running nose or the itching or the Body pain, but it’s the seclusion that hurts you the most when you are down with chicken pox. The varicella zoster virus, struck me down. Stranded up in a room, quarantined from your dear and near, you wonder what you are going to do during the next two weeks of imminent boredom that awaits you.
As the feeling of being an untouchable or outcaste started seeping into my bones, I looked for options to engage myself. In today’s world, where your existence on earth is acknowledged only if you have a Facebook, Orkut or Twitter account, the thought that I am an untouchable only to the physical world but not to the cyber world, brought some relief. It was then that I remembered about my quiescent Twitter account.
Twitter, which was popularized by the likes of Shashi Tharoor, Lalit Modi & Sunanda Pushkar, doesn’t need any introduction in India. But for all those who are not much updated on Twitter - technically speaking, it’s a microblogging site, where you can publish your views on anything in just under 140 characters and figuratively speaking, it’s the biggest social revolution that has happened ever since Internet was conceived.
It was during the initial days of Tharoor controversies that I got attracted towards Twitter. I created an account and started following Tharoor. I was amazed by his knowledge, jealous about his travels and happy about the controversies that he created every other day. First the Holycow, then the Interlocutor, Sweat Equity, Sunanda Pushkar, Lalit Modi, the controversies were boiling one after the other and made my Twitter sojourn interesting.
However, the interest didn’t last for long. After the IPL scam was sorted out and Lalit modi and Shashi Tharoor was shown the door, there were not many controversial high profile guys who could make my Twitter days interesting and I slowly became inactive in Twitter. But thanks to chickenpox now, I reinvented Twitter.
On my comeback I found out that it was not just Holy Cows and Cattle class, but from Barack Obama to Sumit Kumar (he is a member of Team Voyage), everybody was in Twitter. I found many interesting profiles, Rajeev Masand – India’s most popular film critic, Lalettan – Malyalees favourite actor Mohanlal, Harsha Bhogle – Cricket Commentator, Vir Sanghvi – one of the leading Indian journalists, the list went on. I started following many of them and started receiving updates on my mobile about what they are upto at this moment, their views on important issues, etc. So one day, got a tweet from Lalettan saying that he was having shooting at Ooty for his forthcoming movie “Kandahar”, the next day he was flying to United States. I wished him a Happy Journey…Yes!!! I wished my favourite actor a Happy Journey which I never thought was possible in my Life. This is what you call a social revolution. You can put your point to any damn guy in this world, let alone Lalettan, you can even scold Obama for his Afghan misadventures.
As I ventured more into Twitter, I realised that there are more valuable profiles like NASA, ESA etc. I joined them as well, and to my astonishment found that they update every minute detail of the activities carried out by their centers. I was stunned by the social responsibility they exhibit by sharing every piece of information in the public domain.
Now I get to know more details of NASA and its activities through their updates in Twitter. Last month they faced an issue with the Cooling system in the space station. Every single detail of the issue, including the problems they faced while rectifying it was updated in real time.
The experience with ESA was also not much different. They were updating a minute by minute detail of the recent Ariane Launch which put two Arabsat satellites in orbit. They even reported a last minute hold at T-7 minutes. Thanks to Twitter, BSNL 3G and Smart Phone, I could enjoy the 198th launch of Ariane lying down in my sick bed. The transparency they follow in their launch program justifies the credibility they enjoy in the international commercial launch sector.
I searched for similar profiles of ISRO and ended up in finding a dormant profile of Bhuvan. It would be nice if ISRO also have a Twitter account; it would help lot of our people in getting more details about the activities of ISRO and thereby generating more interest in space technologies. As the new age saying goes, “If you are not in Facebook/Twitter, you don’t exist”. Even JAXA has a twitter profile, but they put updates only in Japanese. It seems they are interested to share the information with only their countrymen.
As I was winding up writing this article, there came a tweet from ESA saying “Arianespace to launch GSAT 10 for India”. Hope the day is not so far when we get a tweet from ISRO saying “gsLVM3 to launch Arabsat for ….”


While sharing my experience with this book ‘SERENDIPITY:ACCIDENTAL DESCOVERIES IN SCIENCE’ written by ROYSTON M. ROBERTS, I would like to say that for me reading this book was utterly unceremonious as I was oblivious to such kind of any book in the market till my recent stay at space port of India@ SDSC SHAR. The book, with a catchy title could hold my attention effortlessly at the very first time when I darted a glance over it. Instantly I read few pages on my friend’s suggestion and found it an excellent book based on the breakthroughs in science which have in some way been fuelled by chance.

The book is collection of accidental discoveries in science which is of utmost importance in our daily lives like- Teflon, Velcro, nylon, x-rays, penicillin, safety glass, sugar substitutes, polyethylene, plastics etc. Other than this the book also tells about serendipitous experiences of scientists in the discovery of many revolutionary fundamental principles in science like Newton's theory of gravitation, the Big Bang theory of Creation, and the discovery of DNA. You will find it quit amusing as well as edifying to know the fortuitous connection between cowpox and smallpox by investigating the claim of a milkmaid who avoided smallpox illness in the barnyard, observing the fall of an apple and Newton’s law of gravitation, and many more. These stories clearly revels how the inquisitive human mind turns accident into discovery.

I strongly feel it a must read book especially for my peers of the scientific community and I am pretty sure that they will enjoy reading this book .Unlike novels which calls for reading in a single stretch or in minimum breaks to maintain the continuity, this book is having collection of independent stories which goes to maximum 10 pages, one can easily mange time for reading as per his choice. The book is readily available at VSSC Library.

Rubber Seed Oil – an alternate fuel

Rubber Seed Oil – an alternate fuel

As a developing country, the fast depleting fuel resources are a cause of great concern to us. So exploring the feasibility of using any alternate fuel for automobiles can greatly contribute towards prolonging our available energy resources. The most critical threat is the scarcity of automobile fuels, which can deliver maximum efficiency and pollution free exhaust. As a result, the search for alternate fuel is guided not only by the limited resources of fossil fuels but also the pollution factor.

Research studies show that the Rubber seed oil can be used as an alternate fuel to diesel in combustion ignition engine.

Rubber seed oil

Rubber seed oil, which is highly yellow in colour, is a minor source of non-edible oil in India. The rubber seeds are passed through a standard nut mill and then filtered to make it clean enough.

Rubber seeds are harvested from rubber tree, which is sturdy quick growing and tall. Rubber is traditionally grown in the hinterlands of the south west coast of Kerala and

parts of Tamilnadu. Non-traditional areas where rubber is being cultivated includes North-eastern states, Karnataka, Goa, parts of Orissa, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Maharastra. The fruits nature and ripen during July / September months are picked up every day during this seed fall season. Seeds can also be collected by harvesting fruits at yellow brown colour stage and breaking them. Each seed weighs about 6 gm. They possess hard brown coat having characteristic mottling.

Present uses

Rubber seed oil is used for making soaps and is a substitute for linseed oil in the paint manufacturing industry. Oxidised rubber seed oil is used as anti corrosive coatings, adhesives and resins coatings. Rubber seed oil with Sulphur produces a rubber compound named as factice.

Processing industry

For a long time, only small quantity of the rubber seeds produced in India were utilized for raising stock material or as seedlings for planting. Around 2000 small quantities of seeds were used for extracting oil. Later, this activity picked up gradually with Virudhunagar in Tamilnadu as the centre of effort. Originally, the collection of seeds was confined to Kanyakumari district and then it spread to Kerala also. These seeds are now collected from the rubber growing areas of the Tamilnadu, Kerala and Karnataka states.

The increase in price of non-edible oil after 1970 gave the necessary impetus to this industry. The rubber seed oil production industry is mainly concentrated in Tamilnadu and more particularly in and around Virudhunagar. The millers in Tamilnadu have been mainly processing groundnuts. These groundnut mills function after December while the rubber seed season in India is generally between July to September. As a result it is convenient for groundnut millers to process rubber seed during slack months. The climate condition of Tamilnadu is conducive for drying rubber seed prior to crushing. During July to September it rains heavily in west coast of India while it is dry in the inland districts of Tamilnadu enabling them to dry seeds in the sun.

A few units have also come up in Kerala in recent years. Some of the units processing Cashew kernel waste are located in and around Kollam. The market price of this oil at Tamilnadu is around Rs 25 per Kg.

Estimate of oil

The rubber seed contain an oily endo sperm. Generally 37% of the seed is shell and 63% kernel by weight. The oil content of air-dried kernel is about 47%. An estimated 45000 tones of rubber seed are produced during a normal year. Around 10% of the seeds are used in plantations. The oil content in the rubber seed is about 15% of the total weight of the seed. The annual production rubber seed oil is placed around 3500 tones.

Greater the percentage of carbon and hydrogen, better is the fuel in quality and calorific value since these two constituents are responsible for heat value. Nitrogen has no calorific value and hence its presence is undesirable. For a good fuel Sulphur content should be less so that formation of oxides of Sulphur is reduced leading to minimal pollution from exhaust and corrosive effects in engine parts. In case of rubber seed oil, greater percentage of carbon and hydrogen is advantageous for higher calorific value. Besides ash and moisture content is very low leaving no deposit and heat loss on account of this during combustion. Another added advantage of rubber seed oil is the oxygen content, which reduces emission of carbon monoxide and unburnt hydrocarbon from exhaust.

The inherent properties of rubber seed oil make it suitable for use in diesel engines, as an alternate fuel. Rubber seed oil can be used as a fuel in rural area for agricultural and irrigation equipments.

Development and utilization of plant based seed oils in Indian rural areas will definitely assist in extending our crude oil reserves beyond the expected period of availability.


“Beep Beep”, the alarm in my mobile was giving out its wake up call faithfully at 6 am. Grumbling about its punctuality and persistence and cursing it for meticulously carrying out its duty, I sat up, rubbing my eyes and switched it off. Vaguely, I sensed the presence of butterflies in my stomach. As the slumber- induced fog in my brain cleared away gradually, the reason sprang to my mind- the day I had to go to school and conduct classes under the aegis of World Space Week ’10 celebrations of ISRO had dawned. Suddenly, I was wide awake. I had announced my willingness to be a resource person (as we are known) on a sudden whim. But once I was briefed about the activities to be carried out, I realised that earnest effort had to be put in to pull it off successfully. A refreshing shower and a quick bite later, I commenced the final stages of my preparation for the same. By the time I concluded a swift perusal of the slides in the presentation, the vehicle arranged for our journey had arrived at our doorstep. It had been pouring cats and dogs since daybreak. The LCD operator and two of my senior colleagues from LPSC, Manoj Sir and Venugopal Sir were picked up on the way. Being experienced, they put me at ease, sharing the anecdotes of previous years and counseling me on how to tackle the students’ doubts and queries.

Our first destination was Iqbal school at Peringammala., nestled between picturesque hills and lush forests. As our van rumbled along the winding, uphill road, I noticed the students glancing curiously at the flex board displayed on the vehicle and murmuring among themselves, “Look, ISRO people have come here.“ The Headmistress and teachers there accorded a war welcome to us. The screen and projector were set up. As soon as the laptop was turned on for a last minute scanning of the slides, the power supply went off. The laptop was entirely devoid of charge. The obliging teachers provided us with the school’s laptop, but unluckily, it was low on charge too. The school authorities informed us that this was a regular occurrence and that they were compelled to rely on generators to hold practical classes for the children. About an hour would lapse by the time a generator was procured and put into operation. Notwithstanding these setbacks, we resigned ourselves and decided to go ahead with our mission.

About 100 students (of classes 9 and 10) and teachers were crammed into a library room intended to accommodate not more than 40. Having completed schooling just 5 years ago myself, it was overwhelming to behold the adulation and anticipation of the pupils and their tutors. The fact that the prestige of our organisation was at stake gave me courage. After a formal welcome by the HM and a short introduction by Manoj sir, I plunged into the presentation nervously. My senior colleagues intervened whenever I encountered difficulties , in elucidating a point or was searching for the exact Malayalam translation for technical terms. It was transformed into an active, vociferous interaction between us and the students, awakening their interest and inquisitiveness. The responses to the queries thrown at them were highly enthusiastic. Manoj sir’s quick wit elicited quite a few laughs. The resumption of power supply was greeted with rapturous applause. As we wound up, many of the children had their eyes glued to the visuals on the slides.

Subsequently, there was a barrage of intelligent, thought- provoking doubts from the listeners- how is the launch vehicle controlled and commanded remotely at the launch pad? Beyond the atmosphere, what provides the reaction force for the rocket to proceed upwards? What are the cryo fuels used in our launch vehicles? – being a few samples. There were queries on the RSR launches and the admission procedure at IIST too. We collected the feedback form and set out for our next school, the NSS Govt School, Peringammala. Emboldened by the debut attempt, I relaxed and enjoyed the panoramic view all around.

Unsure of the precise location, we went farther ahead and were ultimately guided correctly to the institution. About 200 students and teachers were seated in a large auditorium. Lady Luck smiled on us this time with the electricity authorities favouring us and the slide show was put up. Unfortunately, the microphone brought out by the authorities refused to co-operate and we had to strain our vocal chords yet again. One of the teachers delivered an excellent introduction on the observance of World Space Week. The video of C-11 (Chandrayaan) liftoff drew spontaneous appreciation from the young audience. Here too, the information imparted by us was received with immense interest and vigour. A smart girl stretched our thinking powers to the limit, probing us with numerous questions on the cosmos- regarding black holes, the theory of relativity, discovery of traces of fossil fuels on the moon Titan etc. The 15-year-old confessed to be an avid reader of Stephen Hawking, arousing our admiration with her insatiable quest for knowledge. A young man enquired,” Chechi, will you come next year also? The video was fantastic.” A few girls actually flanked us, clutching their notebooks and asking for our signatures. Almost embarrassed, I hastily scribbled ‘best wishes’, while trying to acquaint with all of them. With great pleasure and satisfaction, we bid adieu to the school and embarked on our sojourn back to the city.

Recalling this ‘lecture at schools’ programme fills my mind with elation each time. It is a glorious opportunity for us to reach out to and interact with budding scientists and engineers. Having been educated in a private school in the city, I had requested to be allotted schools in the rural suburbs of trivandrum. Although the infrastructure was found wanting in these schools, the incredible fact that the students were on par with their urban counterparts in awareness and knowledge delighted me. The intrigue expressed by the students inspires us also, to garner more knowledge on space Science, to be better- equipped to do justice to the student community during such events. All in all, it was an extremely rewarding and memorable experience.