While Bangalore bumbles with its waste management ideas, 17-year-old Pranav Raghav Sood has been busy implementing many projects to clean up the environment, finds Tina Garg

At 17, you throw weekend parties and attend high school socials; you bunk school and play truant at the first opportunity; and of course, you think you can rule the world — and you pretty much do, in your own head! If that’s what constitutes the sweet age, Pranav Raghav Sood, a 17-year-old from Bangalore is perhaps the exception to the rule. This young lad thinks not about school socials and picnics, but about recycling, sustainability, and what he can do to make the city greener and cleaner.

Having grown up in Bangalore, Pranav is one of the many children who reminisces about how calm and green the city was before it acquired the adjectives of “dirty”, “polluted”, and “over-crowded”. With profound wisdom, he states, “I feel I became open-minded to different cultures all because of Bangalore. You learn to live with so many different people here. The city teaches you to be tolerant.”

Ruing the fact that the city he calls home is losing its character today, Pranav decided to create awareness on issues affecting immediate environment and take corrective action. It began with creating an Environment Association at school, where he initiated a “Waste Paper Management Project” to save trees.

The group collected old notebooks from across the grades, mobilizing participation from over 1,000 students and staff members at the National Public School, Indira Nagar. They reused the clean sheets to make new notebooks and recycled the used ones. Over two tons of paper was recycled in six months, by selling it to the ITC factory for paper manufacturing. What’s more, the children donated all the funds raised to an NGO. “We made sure every aspect of this activity was meaningful in some way – the school benefitted, the unused paper was made into books for children, the used paper was sold, and the proceeds donated to charity.”

This done, Pranav had experienced the power of taking an idea to implementation and knew he could effect a bigger change if he applied his mind to it. He started reading up on air pollution and very soon, wrote a complete paper that discussed the issues of rising air pollution in urban India with suggestions to reduce the same. The paper titled – Air Pollution through Vehicular Emissions in Urban India and Preventive Measures, was published at the International Conference on Environment, Energy and Biotechnology 2012, making Pranav the youngest invitee to make a presentation at the global conference. Unfortunately, his exam schedules did not permit him to attend the conference but his heart lay in surpassing even that.

Slippery oily problem

The summer of 2012 presented him with a unique opportunity and this time Pranav broke new ground when he interned at a large corporate firm working in the area of renewable energy. On a visit to a famous fast foods chain with his friends, while he munched at the delectable French fries, Pranav’s mind was working to figure how the oil used to fry his fries could be sensibly discarded. And voila! He hit upon a unique idea – that of using waste oil from restaurants to create bio-diesel, which may be used to fuel vehicles.

“As a consumer, I am paying so much every time I use petrol or diesel. Not only do these fuels pollute the environment but increasing use is also depleting the fossil fuel resources,” he adds.

“Everyone is talking about solar, wind, etc. India is an agro economy. So I thought about it – can we use waste vegetable oil in any way; or plants which can yield fuel?” His search led him to robust plants like Jatropha which demands meagre growing conditions and non-fertile soil. At the same time, he had targeted 600 of Bangalore’s restaurants to figure that wasted oil amounted to 44,000 liters a week. Highly unhealthy, this waste product is being dumped in land-fills today.

“We talked to various categories of restaurants – from fast food chains to the fine dining restaurants. Everyone was eager to give away the wasted oil on a weekly basis. Through a process called trans-esterification, this used oil can be converted into bio-diesel.” How does this happen we wonder? “Waste oil has fatty acids… when treated with an acid catalyst, it converts into soap; but pre-treated at high temperature or pressure, saponification does not take place; instead it gets converted to bio-diesel.”

How cheap can your fuel get?

It is interesting to note that the cost calculation of this is a startling figure. The cost of generating one litre bio-diesel from Jathropa is just Rs. 32 and used oil is Rs. 16-18 per litre. This spurred Pranav to go beyond his idea and check on the viability of it. He found that if bio-diesel were to fuel the operations of cellular telecom towers (which need a constant flow of electricity), it would result in an effective cost saving of Rs. 3.3 crore over the year!

Great thinking indeed by a young lad, who feels a practical solution like this has eluded many working in the area of green energy because the focus today has largely been on constructing new plants for bio-diesel. His idea was to re-use waste/plants to generate fuel.

No mean discovery, Pranav realized the power of bio-fuels and wrote another paper titled Bioethanol – A Viable Answer to India’s Surging Energy Needs. This time, his paper was accepted at the International Conference on Ecosystems, Environment & Sustainable Development, August 2012, and the precocious youngster had the opportunity to represent his country amidst a global audience in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

His eyes light up as he remembers the interaction with professors from across the world, and the exposure to all their research work. The experience of listening to them, presenting before them, and learning about sustainable initiatives has led him to yet another logical choice in the future – environmental/mechanical engineering which will give exposure to application and generation of renewable energy.

His goals are clear but surely the path leading there can’t be easy. How does Pranav cope with the pressures of the 12th Standard and where does he amass the time for all this additional research which doesn’t fall under his school curriculum? “Of course, if I am devoting so much time to something, I am missing out on other things. While my friends study or socialise, I sometimes miss out. Like I missed the class picnic because I was catching up on work! But in the long run it’s important to channelise your efforts to achieve your dreams. If you are passionate about something, it’s worth it – time well spent!”

Big words from a boy who’s clearly got a sensible head on his shoulders. He smiles as he doesn’t forget to be grateful in his moment of glory, “My parents (Anju and Kapil Sood) really helped in taking my dreams from a dinner table conversation to reality. They connected the dots every time and allowed me to explore unhindered. The principal and teachers of my school have also provided unstinted support in terms of research and execution of the projects. I can never forget that.”

What is it about this special age we wonder? What drives them to achieve, believe, and dream? Uncanny that Blaise Pascal invented the number machine when he was 19; Louis Braille wrote the Braille code at 15; Thomas Alva Edison made his first important invention, a telegraphic repeating instrument at the age of 15.

Going by the signs, Pranav Raghav Sood is clearly in good company and for once, we’re not complaining about generation next!