Tin Man of Hijli

What would the Tin Man of Hijli say, if it could speak? Prof. Shyamal Chakraborty tries to figure that out in this article.

Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur is observing its 60 years of existence this year. Sixty years is not a long time for an academic institution, for there are many European universities that are 10 times older than this. But IIT Kharagpur symbolises the aspirations of a resurgent nation that set itself free from 200 years of servile colonial rule. Built at and around the Hijli Jail, hallowed by the memory of freedom fighters who lived and laid down their lives for the liberation of their motherland, IIT Kharagpur is the Mecca of modern Indian technology.

The purpose of the present article is not to sing Hallelujah to this great institute — which is also my alma mater — for there are many birds with far sweeter notes than mine and perching in taller trees to do that more effectively. I am here to tell my readers the story of the Tin Man that accosts you at the main entrance of the institute.

The 15 feet tall street structure with its round chambers for the torso and pipes for limbs, may look weird to the curious onlooker, but it was really the pilot plant for coal liquefaction by the Fischer-Tropsch process built sometime in the 50s by Sir J.C. Ghosh, the first director of IIT Kharagpur. The structure, now in possession of the Nehru Museum of the institute, is a symbol of Indian technology that went awry with the passing away of visionaries like J.C. Ghosh, M.N. Saha and H.J. Bhabha. What followed thereafter was the import of technology and export of technical manpower, both of which cost the country dearly putting us in a debt trap and making us technologically dependent on the West.

Let us look at what Sir J.C had in mind when he designed the Fischer-Tropsch (FT) reactor at the IIT. But first about the FT process itself.

Foeticide

Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch of Germany developed in 1923 a method of coal liquefaction that provided Germany with transportation fuel during World War II. In 1944, the total capacity of the nine FT plants in Germany amounted to seven million tones per year although many of these plants were destroyed at the end of the war. Research on the FT process continued in Germany and the United States after the end of the war but discovery of large oil fields in the Middle East made it economically unattractive. But it was the view of the affluent West and not of a nation of starving millions that could ill afford oil import. In 1955, faced with an oil embargo for its apartheid policies, South Africa developed its own FT plants.

Thereafter the emphasis shifted from the direct production of gasoline or light olefins to maximising the yield of heavy liquids and waxes that can be subsequently hydrocracked to middle distillates and used as fuels. The modified FT process known as Shell SMDS process found acceptance in Malaysia in 1993 to produce liquid fuels and specialities. Increasing environmental regulations may brighten the prospects of the FT process in the days to come while opening up the possibility of exploiting stranded gas resources or gas resources that are being flared today.

Sir J.C, who narrowly missed the credit for the theory of inter-ionic attraction in electrolytes now known after Debye and Huckel, sensed the importance of the FT process almost half a century ago, for a country having vast coal reserves. More abundant varieties of coal such as peat or lignite with a lower calorific value could have been the best raw material for the process. The question whether it could have competed with crude oil is a matter of pure speculation for while South Africa and Malaysia pursued the technological and economic possibilities of the process to the end, we killed the dream child of Sir J.C in the foetal stage!

Cyber Coolies

That it is meaningless to talk about the economic feasibility of a chemical process until it is fully put into practice will be apparent from the following example. During World War II, Britain badly needed huge quantities of magnesite refractory for its steel furnaces and although India had an abundance of it, its shipping was open to threats from enemy torpedoes.
To meet the challenge, British engineers pumped in seawater which contains only 0.5 per cent of magnesium salts as compared to 2.6 per cent of common salt. In the beginning the process appeared to be uneconomical, fit only to meet war time exigencies, but today sea water magnesite and other magnesium products are the most widely used so much so that India imports these bricks while letting her own magnesite reserves unexploited.

India is indebted to Sir J.C for setting up the first IIT which became a model for other educational institutes to follow. But the failure of his successors to carry on from where he left has made the country technologically dependent on the advanced West. Thus India is producing the largest number of cyber coolies in the world but very few engineers who can set up industries of their own. The difference in the quality of our scientists and engineers with that of Japan for example is too visible to make further comment necessary.

The United States faced a similar situation in the beginning of the 20th century when bright boys from the US went to Europe for higher studies. Albert Michelson, the first American Nobel laureate in Physics reversed the trend. Ironically, the negative result of the Michelson-Morley experiment not only verified Einstein’s hypothesis on the speed of light but also proved positive for American science when his disciple, Robert Millikan, received the Nobel 16 years later.

On the golden jubilee year of IIT Kharagpur, the question that we should address ourselves is this: are we going to dance to the tune of the pied pipers of the West and destroy ourselves or establish our pride of place in the comity of nations? If the Tin Man of Hijli could speak, it would have asked the same question.

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