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Thursday, 9 February 2017

Moulding better grade rubber

In an interview, Dr Pradip Maji, Assistant Professor at the Department of Polymer and Process Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee with Chemical Today magazine talks at length about the ways in which new age polymers are changing the dynamics and functioning of various industries. The rubber scientist also talks about his journey in the Indian Air Force and DRDO and his phenomenal contribution in making indigenized rubber.
Your current research.
My research group is currently engaged in the synthesis of nanomaterials mostly cellulose nanofibre (CNF), cellulose nanocrystal (CNC) and graphene-based materials. The focus is also driven towards the synthesis of biobased and petroleum-based polyurethane and their nanocomposites with the nanomaterials mentioned above, aiming their application in high-performance composites which can be exploited in biomedical applications like bone and tissue engineering, 3D bio-printing and many other applications like in automobile sector, paint industry, aerospace industry etc. My research group is also working on self-healing polymeric material, super absorbent polymer and low specific weight polymer for thermal insulation application and in rubber technology for aerospace industry. 
Research on graphene.
My research is devoted to synthesising graphene and graphene-based materials in a low-cost and time-saving way and their modifications, with the aim to exploit the materials in making polymer nanocomposite with a wide range of polymers like polyurethane, SEBS, polyanilene etc. In one project we are trying to develop a graphene/polyurethane nanocomposite which can be utilised in high-performance applications like in automobile sector, aerospace industry or in the packaging industry. In another project, we are trying to develop antibacterial polyurethane paint by exploiting the antibacterial property of graphene-based materials.
Usefulness of rubber technology research for the aerospace industry.
Rubber technology is a specialised field of science that comprises the study of the transformation of rubbers or elastomers into useful products. Aircraft and aero-engine require top quality parts that are able to endure the worst weather conditions, including temperature extremes and exposure to oils & gases. Aircrafts should also be able to protect travelling assets from the elements. As a specialist in rubber technology, manufacturing of components that can fit the demanding environments is my priority area. It is surprising to note that the number of the rubber component in an aircraft (for helicopter) is more than 2500 in number. Each component has a specific role. Airworthiness certificate of each component is essential for flight safety and mission safety. My research will be helpful to understand the principle how to convert a commodity rubber to aerospace grade. 
Various other research ongoing in this area.
My research group has already developed a new facile and green route for the synthesis of cellulose nanofibre (CNF). During the extraction of CNF, harsh acid treatment is an essential step. But, my research group has developed a facile route where no acid hydrolysis has been used, but the resultant CNF is of very good quality. Now, we are focusing on the utilisation of this material in superabsorbent materials and 3D bio-printing which are very emerging areas of research and very few research groups in India are doing work on the same line. 
We have also developed a new route of synthesis of graphene-based material (GO) reducing the reaction time and increasing the reaction yield compared to the available procedures. Now, we are focusing on the application of this material in phase change materials, automobile and decorative paints and triple shape memory materials. These are very emerging areas of research. In another project, my research group is involved in developing self-healing composite materials and self-healing paints, which has the potential to bring a drastic change in composite and paint industry. Very few research groups in India are engaged in this area.
Sectors that will benefit from polymers research.
My research group is focused on synthesising polymer nanocomposites. Graphene/polyurethane nanocomposite could be beneficial for structural applications, aerospace industry and high texture paint. Whereas, bio-based polyurethane and their nanocomposites can be deployed in biomedical applications and self-healing polymers will be helpful for automobile application, self-healing paint and other high-end applications. 
I wish to commercialise the CNF manufacturing technology. If any organisation is interested in tying up with us, we are happy to do it. 
Advantages of polymer nanocomposites in various industrial sectors.
Polymer nanocomposites could be used in various structural applications for its light weight, high strength, high durability and low cost. It is important for paint industry because it can provide high barrier property and durability to the composite paint. Improved shape memory property of nanocomposite can be deployed in aerospace industry and many other sectors. So, It can be used in various structural applications, automobile car body parts manufacturing, paint industry, aerospace industry, self-healing paints, biomedical sectors like bone and tissue engineering, 3D bio printing etc.  
Smart polymers and their major applications.
Smart polymers are polymers that respond to different stimuli or changes in the environment. They respond to numerous stimuli (temperature, pH, electric and magnetic fields, light intensity, biological molecules, etc), and scientists must devise the best way to apply them in all research areas.
Types of smart polymer
  • temperature responsive polymers
  • pH responsive polymers
  • photo-responsive polymers
  • magnetically responsive polymer hydrogels and elastomers
  • enzyme responsive polymers
  • shape memory polymers
  • self-healing polymer systems
Applications of smart polymer
  • substrates for tissue engineering
  • nanocarriers for drug delivery
  • bioseparation and other biotechnological applications
  • textile applications
  • smart polymers for food packaging applications
  • smart polymers for optical data storage
  • actuators and artificial organs, etc
Synthesising smart polymers
There are several methods to synthesise these polymers. Based on a lab scale and industrial scale, these polymers can be synthesised by various methods depending upon the applications. For eg., Magnetic responsive polymers are a result of the combination of polymers with magnetic particles, at nano or micro level, that hold the ability to undergo changes in response to magnetic fields, also known as magnetoelastic or magnetostrictive polymeric composites. On this account, a wide variety of magnetic nanoparticles have been incorporated/added to polymers in order to combine properties of both materials into a stable system, eg. colloidal formulations. 
Challenges faced research.
Nearly all research activities require dedicated funding. Preliminary studies can sometimes be carried out without a grant.  However, most studies beyond the pilot phase require dedicated funding. Infrastructure and research environment is very important for conducting world-class research. These types of difficulties I am facing during an implementation of my thoughts. Materials (chemicals) availability at right time is also another concern. 
Experience in working as a scientist with the Indian Air Force and the Ministry of Defence (DRDO), Govt of India.
As a Scientist and specialised in rubber technology, my role was to indigenize the rubber products for Russian origin aero-engine and aircraft structure of Mi-17, Mi-8, Mi-17IV helicopter and AN-32 aircraft. I have entrusted the complex task of designing the press forms, for manufacturing of various rubber spares, besides recommending and approving the raw materials i.e. rubber compounds. During my stay at Indian Air Force, I had developed more than 150 new products that are currently being used by Indian Air Force. My involvement in the process of self-reliance has resulted in the clearing of many productions holds up (PHU) and Aircraft on ground (AOG) items.
Also during the IAF days, I bagged an honour, which makes me feel proud even to this day.
The frequent premature withdrawal of tail drive shaft of MI-17/MI-8 helicopters due to a failure of Russian sealing ring was resulting in increasing the down time of the aircraft besides AOGs. With my knowledge and unrelenting efforts, I developed the sealing ring with improved quality. This has resulted in clearing many AOGs. I have introduced a new rubber compound and injection moulding technology for indigenisation of oil accumulator diaphragm of Mi17 helicopter that was frequently failed due to its inferior quality of materials and manufacturing process.  
This has resulted in an enormous saving of foreign exchange to the exchequer. For my application of knowledge and professional competence for the development of above-mentioned two specific products, I was conferred with Commendation by Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Maintenance Command at the Indian Air Force on 26th January, 2014 which I received from Air Officer Commanding of 3 Base Repair Dept, Air Force Station, Chandigarh. I feel proud of my contribution for nation self-reliance.
© Chemical Today Magazine
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