Tency, one of the founders of Auroville's Centre for Scientific Research (CSR), looks back on 25 years of research and gives his views about the future.
Tency shows off Auroville's newly acquired Oxy-hydrogen machine
Auroville Today: What has been CSR's greatest achievements from a product or market standpoint, and from your personal view point?
Tency: (laughs). We're always a bit sceptical about ‘greatest achievements'. We don't fit in that category. We have been doing quite well in ferrocement technology. We were one of the institutions which brought it from the lab to the field. And we have evolved with it over a period of nearly 25 years; from roof channels to door panels, to water tanks.
Now there is a huge amount of work – mainly prefabricated ferrocement modules for waste-water treatment. Instead of custom-designing a system, we manufacture pre-fabricated modules, which we put on a lorry and install directly on site.
We got a kick-start through the tsunami projects when we were asked to do a few such units. And they nicely combine two areas where we have expertise: ferrocement technology and waste-water treatment. This is also the area where we make our living and manage to set aside funds for further infrastructure, which is needed.
Over the years, we have co-existed with AuroRE. We have quite a strong bond – we see each other as sister units – and it is difficult to separate the two.
Together we've tested all the possible renewable energy devices which fit in this climatic zone.Through trial and error, we've tried to find out what works and what doesn't.
Our conclusion is that if, as a community, we want to grow towards a more collective system and enter the age of ‘energy self-sufficiency', the answer lies in thermal energy. ‘Heat' is the one of the renewable energy sources that is available to us here in Auroville 24 hours of the day, seven days a week.We are actively exploring this is area now [see box below].
We are also jointly involved with another CSR unit, Auroville Water Harvest, in trying to draw up a sustainable water scenario for Auroville. We have done all the scientific studies and now we know that our aquifers are being depleted at a serious rate. So we have got two initiatives off the ground: one is to increase the rainwater harvesting capacity in the tanks around the Kaluveli area, and create infiltration fields for letting the rain water infiltrate underground and replenish the aquifers, which are our only water resource at present.
The other one is a personal passion – to do something with the Pondy Sewage farm. We're talking about 15,000 million litres of waste-water a day which is not used and could be a resource, not only for Auroville but for the whole region.
Studies have been going on for the past 7 years. To clean this resource, we know the answer involves primitive plants, algae. Here we are working with Alok of AuroRE and Auroville Water Harvest.
Another activity of CRS are the training programmes. Each month, we receive enquiries and requests from students who have finished their college degree and who want to do a practical study in Auroville.
Some years ago, the idea of setting up a post-graduate institute came about, combining the expertise of people working in CSR and AuroRE. This has now culminated in the Design, Energy and Water Institute or DEW.
Already this year a group of sixteen students have come and participated in learning and doing hands-on projects.
Does living in Auroville help in innovation and discovery?
There is usually a very long gestation period between when an idea comes up and the first prototypes are built; like the dehumidifiers for example. What is nice about this community and what is unique, is that we are able to test and fine tune our products under field conditions instead of in the lab.
All the systems that we've developed here have had a long testing experience within Auroville.
The fact that the community is willing to play the guinea pig is special. Of course, freak-outs happen, and explosions do occur. Ultimately what comes out is a product which has been through a full-scale testing cycle. No other manufacturer has the possibility to test their products under all conditions, and that includes difficult clients and personnel!
Incidentally, money has never been a major hurdle. We never had an abundance – so we could never spend on crazy ideas – which perhaps was a good thing. Our projects have always been connected with practical self-interest.
What helps you remain an optimistic researcher in Auroville?
There is a beautiful statement made by the Mother in her talks with the children of the Ashram school. Someone asks her about the qualities needed and She replies that enthusiasm and discipline are the two main pillars necessary.
And I am still very enthusiastic!
What are your views on patents and intellectual rights?
This is personal. Everyone thinks a little bit differently.
We have never managed to get a patent. It is not worthwhile – the energy and funds that are needed for that process are immense.
More importantly, for me, to share an invention, something that works, it is a kind of indirect payback to India and society. It is a gesture of gratitude – for having helped and sustained the Auroville experiment over many years.
When we deliver a product, it is paid for. So why should we, on top of that, have a patent? Patents belong to the old world – increasingly things move so fast that a better product is already in the market after a short time.
Any plans to start a manufacturing plant as your products get popular?
The fact that we move from product to product is because others take it over. Every 5-6 years, we have to find another product because the guy next door is doing it as well as you, plus a lot cheaper. So it forces us to be in a perpetual education and unending creativity...
My chair is not secure; and forget CEO status!!
Oxy-hydrogen machines in Auroville
As part of the attempts to understand whether the energy needs of the community can be met on a large scale by thermal power, CSR is experimenting with a device called the oxy-hydrogen machine or the Brown gas machine. Using water as raw material, and hexane as fuel, the machine splits water to produce a chemical substance called ‘oxy-hydrogen' which is a flammable gas.
Oxy-hydrogen was first discovered by scientist Yull Brown, so it is also referred to as ‘Brown' gas. The unique property of this gas is that it releases a tremendous amounts of heat energy by a process of implosion rather than explosion. So the heat released from the oxy hydrogen flame reaches very high temperatures and can be used for many purposes. Currently oxy-hydrogen machines are used for cutting steel and other metals, and for welding purposes. Many more potential applications that are yet to be discovered.
Three years ago, Tency heard about the Oxy-hydrogen or Brown gas machine from some Indian friends, and got enthusiastic. It led him to a long search for contacts in India , and South East Asia . Finally, contact was made with the Chinese inventor based in Singapore who had created his own machine. Alok of AuroRE met the inventor at a conference which led to three machines being donated to Auroville for further tests and new applications.
In the near future, CSR hopes to receive a 3-member delegation from the company who will demonstrate the various possibilities of the Brown gas machine. Soon after this visit, CSR hopes to be able to adapt the machine to Auroville's needs and conditions.