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Thoughts for the Road

While living in Bopal, a suburb of Ahmedabad, I had to take a long journey, almost an hour, from my home to Gandhinagar, where I had set up the Facilitation Centre for Industrial Plasma Technologies. The routine was that I would spend time until lunch here before going to the main campus of the Institute for Plasma Research at Bhat. The office provided a car so that I could relax on the back seat; in “solitary splendour”, as a friend remarked about another rider. The highway is part of the Ring Road which goes around the city. There are no traffic snarls and crowds of bustling vendors. The drive would be utterly boring if it were not for the passing vehicles and my stream of thought.

The highway vehicles, in their variety, reflect the diversity of India. There are shining new ones and rickety old ones kept together by hammer and nails and the drivers will. Fast cars flash by while senile oldies chug along slower than a tractor. Camel carts piled high with household goods of a family moving house lumber along, with the camel with its head held high with disdain at all the surrounding fuss.

Most trucks want to communicate something to the world. ‘Horn OK please’ is a common refrain. There are many suggestions about what to do with the dipper. “Use dipper at Nite” was very suggestive. If one did not what a dipper was, it might sound plain naughty. There are stern warnings to keep your place; ‘apne aukat mat bhoolo’. “Buri nazarwale, thera mooh kala!” was a warning to all those who looked at the truck with bad intentions.

Truck drivers are enthusiastic versifiers. I saw this delightful couplet on the back of a truck: “Yeh neem ke ped Chandan se kam nahin, Hamari Ludhiana London se kam nahin (This tree of Neem is not less than Sandalwood, Our Ludhiana is no less than London.)”, which made me think of the burly sardarji driving the truck, scratching his head thinking up the rhyme.

A thoughtful comment by my daughter-in-law made me look at the truck drives with new respect. She said that the truckers are generally considerate to the car behind honking to pass. It is the yuppies in their BMWs who make a nuisance on the road with their self-importance.

The long ride gives me time to put on my thinking cap. I have spent my professional life searching for how we can find commercially and industrially useful applications derived from Plasma Physics. Through these efforts, a Centre came up in Gandhinagar and numerous technologies have been developed and spun off. One of these ideas was to do with the Plasma Torch used in the plasma pyrolysis process we were working on. The idea of using the gas generated during pyrolysis to be sent back through the plasma torch to replace external Nitrogen gas source was germinated during my morning trip. We got a patent for this invention because it dispensed with the expensive Nitrogen cylinder for the operation of the torch. The patent was for “Plasma Torch with an Endogenous Gas Source”.

Another idea was to do with a NASA invention of producing atomic Oxygen by a high voltage streamer discharge. I thought that we could use it to clean up the soot in temples caused by oil lamps. The atomic Oxygen would react with Carbon in the soot and convert it into Carbon Dioxide. We even packaged the Atomic Oxygen generator inside a hairdryer, to demonstrate to DST officials the ease of using it. A truly innovative idea came up when we were planning to develop Teflon like coating on metals surfaces. The precursor for the plasma polymerization process was Carbon Tetrafluoride gas, which was difficult to come by in small quantities. We hit upon the idea of pyrolyzing waste Teflon to generate the gas, with which we could synthesize the Teflon coating.

The seed of an idea which was born while discussing with my friend Abhijit Sen on scaring away pigeons which used to foul the terrace of his palatial home got muscles and body during a road trip. Spark gaps and capacitors gave a loud bang, enough to scare away the pigeons, but were considered dangerous. A potentially successful idea was a dispenser which would drop clumps of quicklime or Calcium Oxide into water with random periodicity. The resulting slaking reactions would cause explosions which we thought would scare the pigeons away. We never built this.

I have always had a fascination for words and the images they create. The long drive was an appropriate time to recall some enjoyable imageries. The great cartoonist Aravindan, my neighbour in Kottayam, had a comics series called ‘ Cheria manushyanum valiya lokavum’, meaning small people and the big world in Mathrubhoomi weekly. He used images that certain words evoked to great effect. A girl was sitting and planting her eyes in a field, (in Malayalam planting ones’ eyes means looking). Another equally bizarre image would be when this girl throws her eyes at someone, which again only means that she was looking at someone. Thurber was a genius at creating spectacular verbal images. His coloured helper Della (of the reeves), Barney Haller who went to the garrick and became warbs, and Walter Mitty who would go on a trip merely on hearing a suggestive word are characters I can empathize with.

Perhaps because I read that cold non-neutral plasma could have sharp boundaries, I realized that I could visualize what goes on inside the non-neutral plasma experimental devices that we built with great clarity. For example, when I conceptualized the steady-state injection of electrons into the toroidal device, I could see the electron flow from the filament at the bottom, flowing past the inner wall and interacting with it through the electric fields, slowing down, increasing in density because of the slow down, enhancing the electric field further, which causes further slowing down and ultimately trapping near the inner wall. I had an image of spoke-like structures, diocotron waves forming at the boundary, which further scoops in particles from the vertical flow into the trapped plasma, much like the spoked wheel scooping up water from the stream in the traditional water pumps used in Kerala.

Steve Jobs believed that: “Creativity is just connecting things. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.” Tarun Gulati, Organizational Trainer, writes “It is this mental, and most importantly, the physical act of Contemplation — stopping to do what you were doing, sitting on a chair or going for a walk, and only thinking and doing nothing else — that makes innovation possible. Contemplation is an innovation incubator.” My morning car rides have been ideal for contemplation and perhaps, modest achievements in innovation.

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