In 2021, 30-year-old Vidyut Mohar, an India Engineering entrepreneur and Sustainability graduate of the Delft University of Technology, won the inaugural Earthshot prize with his business partner, Dr Kevin Kung, a biological engineering graduate of MIT. In 2015, they had founded Takachar, a Boston based Limited company that turns biomass into biocoal. It is an MIT spinout company based on a device patented by MIT that burns a small amount of biomass (about 10%) to generate heat, which then bakes the rest of the biomass and densifies it making it easier to handle and use. The charcoal produced reduces transportation costs by two-thirds and as it is more valuable than biomass, the farmers are incentivised not to burn the biomass, as has been the tradition.
The problem is that globally, $120 billion of forest and crop waste are burned annually. Not only is this a waste of energy, but it pollutes the atmosphere and kills 7 million people a year according to the World Health Organisation. According to Vidyut, he, and his family “were always affected by bad air quality” so much so that in some parts of India life expectancy has been reduced by as much as 10 years. So, in 2015, a year when air pollution was particularly bad, he decided to do something about it and partnered with Kevin, whom he met when he became a Fellow of MIT’s Tata Centre https://tatacenter.mit.edu. As Kevin says, “a unique part of Tata is that you’re considering the ecosystem as a whole” so their invention, a low cost portable machine that roasts agricultural waste and can be towed behind a tractor, does not just reduce air pollution thereby improving the health of the people, but it improves their wealth also. “The idea is that the people who own and operate our machines run a small business,” says Vidyut. Not only does Takachar train them in how to use the machines, but it introduces them to markets and to such international customers as Brita who use the charcoal in the water purification process.
The machine can process about 200kg of biomas per hour and can run for 20 hours each day and since its founding, Takachar has processed over 9000 metric tonnes of crops and worked with over 5500 farmers. For this, in 2020, the United Nations Environment Programme recognised Vidyut as a Young Champion of the Earth. The Award provides seed funding and mentorship to promising environmentalist tackling the world’s most pressing challenges. As the chief of the energy and climate branch at UNEP’s Economy Division, Mark Radha, recognised “Takachar’s innovative technology can help farmers turn what is currently thought of as a waste into a valuable resource while helping clean up our environment.”
The long term aim of Takachar is to scale the project and the £1 million Earthshot prize has speeded up that process, enabling it to hire more staff and develop its prototype. It is also collaborating with a partner in Kenya on scaling fertiliser production. By 2030 the plan is to be working with 1 million farmers and to be preventing at least some 700 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
On their website Takachar modestly claim to be addressing SDGs 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), 13 (Climate Action), 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) and 1 (No Poverty). They are, in fact, also addressing 3 (Good Health and Well-being), 9 (Industry Innovation and Infrastructure), 10 (Reduced Inequalities), 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) and 15 (Life on Land). They are very much a venture that is ensuring profit, people and planet are in harmony with each other.
As Vidyut says “Slowly and gradually all funding streams available and support services are turning towards sustainability. Companies are going to lose if they do not become sustainable in the long run.”
Anonymous (2020), Turning waste into energy in India. MIT TataCenter Fellow News. 16 December. (tatacenter.mit.edu)
O’Neil, K. M (2022), MIT spinoff Takachar processes waste biomass airborne emissions. MIT Energy Initiative -MITei (energy.mit.edu)
Wilson, J., (2022), Innovative idea helps to reduce the impacts of climate change. World Food Programme, 3 June (www.wfp.org)
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