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Fluid Mechanics is Non-intuitive. Small changes can give significant solutions

Prof.Amit Agrawal, Department of Mechanical Engineering, IIT Bombay


Science has the power to unravel the deepest mysteries, fathom the most bizarre events and bring to life, things that could only be dreamt of; for it has been rightly said by Vanna Bonta - ‘Impossible is not a scientific term’. 


We had the amazing opportunity of interviewing Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award winner Prof. Amit Agrawal, a man who embodies the above saying. Prof. Agrawal is the Institute chair professor at Department of Mechanical Engineering, IIT Bombay. He leads a group of scientists who are involved in the development of next-generation diagnostic microdevices. So far, his research work has translated into more than 150 articles published in peer-reviewed international journals and about a dozen patents. Prof. Agrawal also serves on the Editorial Board of three prestigious journals. He is also the elected Fellow of the Indian National Academy of Engineering (INAE) and the National Academy of Sciences India (NASI). He has been a faculty member at IIT Bombay since July 2004 and has contributed significantly to the research in the fields of Turbulence, PIV, Heat Transfer, Rarefied Gas Flows, and Microfluidics. 

Here is an excerpt from his interview, which is bound to stimulate one’s grey cells. His zeal for scientific excellence will surely give the required push to various students to delve deeper on their ideas and work harder towards their goals.


Q1) You work in the areas of fluid mechanics and heat transfer, with specialization in microscale flows, turbulent flows, and bio-microdevices, how did you decide on your specializations? Any particular achievement in this area that motivated you to take up research in fluid mechanics?

Fluid mechanics is a very non-intuitive subject. Small changes here and there can bring about significant changes in the solution. The fluid flow, even in the air and water around us, has interesting patterns. Once you have a good understanding, you can appreciate why these patterns originate. This was a strong motivating factor for me. 


Q2) You serve as editor of three prestigious journals – Nature Scientific Reports, Experimental Thermal and Fluid Science, Sadhana; and were elected as Fellow by Indian National Academy of Engineering (INAE) and National Academy of Sciences India (NASI). Having won several awards and recognitions, including the most prestigious Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology, what changes have these awards and recognitions brought in your career, and how do feel having received them?

Receiving the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize was an overwhelming experience. The recognition in the form of the fellowship of these renowned institutes and editorship of the journals were mainly due to the success of our publications in the scientific community. This type of recognition motivates me to work harder.


Q3) How has been your journey in IIT Bombay till date? What made you come back to the motherland from the States? What differences did you notice in the research work there and here, and what are things we can learn from them?

The atmosphere at IIT Bombay is highly positive concerning research work. I have met many supportive and inspiring colleagues as well as disciplined and hardworking students. The labs and central facilities at IIT Bombay are enviable when viewed from the outside, which is what drew me to this institute. To date, the state of the art facilities here motivate me towards my work. As far as the learnings from the nature of research work in other countries are concerned; the seriousness and passion for their work amongst the people I met outside India are worth drawing inspiration from. India has come a long way, but it still has the potential to step up in this aspect.

Another thing that is worth noting is the ability to present the research work in a way such that it has maximum reach and subsequently higher chances of making a positive impact. I firmly believe that the research and developmental work going on in IIT Bombay too should reach the people inside and outside the Institute. This can be a strong motivating factor for students to pursue higher studies in the Institute. 


Q4) Please share with us one breakthrough moment in your research career, the moment where you wished to yell ‘Eureka!

Conceptualizing a better model for the blood plasma separation device was a breakthrough moment for me. I remember having thought about it the entire night. The idea seemed to be capable of introducing various new helpful features to the primitive model, and a series of experiments clearly established its efficiency. I was overjoyed when the experiments were successful. 


Q5) What are some notable research works done by your colleagues that you admire?

I have a lot of admiration for Prof. Atul Sharma, who has written some amazing reports. He motivates his students to write their own codes, perform in-depth analysis and create their own project reports. I am also deeply inspired by Prof. Rajnish Bharadwaj, who is working on droplet drying, the behaviour of droplets on different surfaces and has devised various exciting models for the same. Prof. Suhas Joshi is also one of the professors I look up to. He has a great vision, and puts in tireless efforts into his very inspiring work.


Q6) How did you come about taking up research? Right after graduation, you worked at Tata Motors, what according to you are the key differences in working in a corporate sector and research sector? What do you think are the qualities needed to pursue research?

The corporate sector has clear objectives around a business-oriented model which has its own advantages. On the other hand, academia is related to answering different questions. It is focused on identifying and solving the problems that arise in the industry in a long term perspective. It revolves around the use of one’s expertise and skills to develop solutions for making the functioning of various industrial processes better. The key to research is perseverance, keep thinking about the problem you have at hand and be focused towards your work. This goes a long way in ensuring that the efforts bear fruit.


Q7) Can you explain in simple words your research? For example: What are microdevices? How are they helpful? You have developed microdevices for various applications; can you name some of them?

I would like to start with a relatable and easy to understand example. Despite considerable progress in the medical field, a method for ensuring quick and accurate blood tests that require minimal amounts of blood is something that various research groups have been working on. One of the microdevices that we have created ( Blood plasma separation device) is capable of replacing the conventional centrifuge in the blood testing models. This would reduce the blood sample size and subsequently the quantity of reagents required and finally the cost (both in terms of money and energy) incurred in carrying out a blood test. There are other microdevices that we have worked on that address different problems. A few worth mentioning are platelet-rich plasma devices (used for returning plasma rich blood having 10 to 14 times the plasma present in the sample fed into the system) and hydrodynamic focusing devices ( that channel the flow of various blood bodies and make the detection of foreign bodies easier). All of these are coin-sized devices.


 Q8) What triggered you to come up with the idea to make microdevices for biological applications?

It was a coincidence, one can say. The group at IIT Bombay was one of the first groups that were capable of dealing with the complexities of dealing with blood, it’s flow and components. The heat and pressure conditions required for its study could be simulated here. I was interested in solving the problems associated with the study of blood and creating devices related to it. A suitable scientific environment gave impetus to my dream. 


Q9) What went into working towards making a microdevice for blood-plasma separation, how many prototypes did you build? How much time did it take? 

The Centre for Excellence for Nano-electronics and other central facilities at IIT Bombay has made it possible for us to make the silicon moulds followed by the polymer-based microdevices from them. We had three generations of the plasma devices, and it took a total of five years to reach the present design. The project started with Dr. Siddharth Tripathi, who was then working on this for his M. Tech research. He later joined the team again when he began pursuing his Ph. D. degree at IIT Bombay. The first model we built was a basic one in terms of the geometry and features. In the subsequent models, we tried to add more features to improve efficiency. The project has been successful after a series of trials and experiments and the incessant efforts of the Ph. D. students, M. Tech. students and the interns who have contributed to it. Some other students I would like to name are: Vijai Lakshmi who has contributed to the platelet-rich plasma device, Amit Prabhakar (Ph. D.) and Varun Kumar (M. Tech.). I have also worked with undergraduates. Few names that prominently come to my mind are Nishant Dongari, who is a professor at IIT Hyderabad now and Narendra Singh who has completed his Ph. D. at Stanford University.


Q10) How difficult was it to come up with an analytical solution of the Burnett equation? What problems did this solve? What are its applications?

Fluid flow is governed majorly by the Navier -Stokes equation, which has been in use for 100 years or more. In some instances, however, it fails to produce accurate results. Burnett equations (a family of equations) on the other hand, is a series of superset equations which deal with even those cases in which the Navier Stokes equation does not work efficiently. However, there was no analytical solution for the same. We thought of an iterative way of solving the equation. While various groups were trying their hands at it, we tried a different approach of applying our mathematical skills keeping the physical picture in mind, which gave us the desired results. Aircraft at high altitude, spacecraft coming into the earth’s atmosphere, vacuum equipment and air flowing inside our lungs are examples of a few areas in which the Burnett equations can be satisfactorily employed.


Q11) What is the importance of the synthetic jet and microchannel based device for cooling?

Cooling is required in various applications. Something that most of us can relate to is heating up laptops. Several years back, several core processors were not present, and heating laptops was an even more pressing issue. Synthetic jet devices work on principles similar to breathing which involves taking in the air inside a cavity, ejecting it out and directing this air onto the heated device. We were one of the first groups in India to study the heat transfer aspect of synthetic jets. Our work was positively recognized by the scientific community, and it has been quoted in various scientific publications and journals.


Q12) A lot of students jump on the corporate bandwagon without giving much thought to their interests, any advice for students that may motivate them to take up research? Even those who venture into this field, generally prefer foreign institutions over those in our country, any comments on that? Any changes in the past 3 decades in the field of research that you would like to mention?

Various problems around us can be solved using our expertise in science and technology. Every person here has extreme potential. I would like to see a bigger share of these solutions coming from the Institute. Research gives you visibility and satisfaction. This is something that people fail to understand. As for the brain drain from our country, especially our Institute, students do not understand the value of the state of the art facilities available in the premises, probably because we haven’t tried to popularize them as much. The familiarity with the expectations of the professors from us and the compatibility with the way of working are two things that would be hard to find in another country. One should surely keep these factors in mind before thinking of pursuing higher studies outside India. About the change in the past decades, one of the positive changes I have observed is the increase in the value of a Ph. D. degree. More students today are drawn towards research, and it has started getting due respect from society as well. As far as the changes in the research field are concerned, research has become more evidence oriented due to improvement in detection devices. It is now essential to provide evidence for your work to gain recognition.  


Q13) How was life as a Ph. D. student? How is life as a Professor? How important do you think a teacher is in a student’s life? Did you have a teacher in your life who inspired you a lot or holds a very special place in your life?

I enjoyed my tenure as a Ph. D. student. As a Ph. D. student, you have ample time for research and exploration. All tools are available at all times for experimenting. On the other hand, as a professor, you have a team, and subsequently more hands and more minds. Carrying out the entire on ground experimentation on one’s own has a different satisfaction associated with it which is difficult to enjoy as a professor. However, having a team brings a fresh perspective of each member and helps in ensuring maximum results from one’s efforts. As for teachers, they hold a special place in my life. My father is the most inspirational teacher I have had. I want to be able to achieve the same clarity of thoughts as him. I admire my wife’s research work too and try getting her opinion about my work whenever possible. I believe that teachers help us to look at things differently and support us in our endeavours. I am grateful to all my teachers who have helped me in my journey.

The research work carried out by Prof. Amit Agrawal and his team has gained immense praise in the scientific community. Their years of toil have borne fruits by positively impacting the society. We wish that he excels in his future endeavours too. The entire IITB community is extremely proud of his achievements, and we are sure this is a journey that is going to be marked by even more wonderful milestones in the time to come.