The Technology powerhouse
The Bhabha Atomic Research Centre has made unsurpassable contributions to all sectors of nation building. From power generation and national security to agriculture, healthcare, waste management, water technologies and food processing, the research and innovations of the premier nuclear re-search institute have put it on the global map
Nestled in the lap of Trombay Hills, on the shores of the Arabian Sea in Mumbai, stands India’s premier institution for nuclear research, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). True to its motto “Atoms in service of the nation”, the sprawling 1,100-acre establishment houses eight nuclear research reactors and several laboratories engaged in cutting-edge multidisciplinary research to harness nuclear energy for the benefit of the nation. It is imperative to say that BARC nurtures research not only to cater to the needs of the nuclear sector but also of the society at large, in the form of researches in agricultural, healthcare, waste management, treatment of water, food processing, etc. The vast applications that the research at BARC caters to make it a magnanimous institution of the country that is not only at the forefront of technology at a national level but has also helped India achieve a strong standing in the global arena of science and technology.
It all started with the futuristic vision of noted scientist and visionary Dr. Homi Jehangir Bhabha, to build a stronger India by harnessing the power of atomic energy. Dr. Bhabha, known as the “Father of the Indian Nuclear Program”, established the Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay (AEET), in 1954, for promoting multidisciplinary research in nuclear science and engineering. After his demise, AEET was renamed as Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, in 1967.
Powering the Nation
The true legacy of BARC lies in its world-class research reactors, which provided the windows to study and understand nuclear radiation and its effects, and gave India the confidence to venture into nuclear power generation. BARC currently has two operational research reactors, namely APSARA-U (upgraded) and DHRUVA. Six older research reactors have been decommissioned, of which, the APSARA reactor was Asia’s first nuclear reactor set up in 1956. The new APSARA-U (its upgraded version) achieved criticality in September 2018. The knowledge gained from the research reactors helped India to gain self-sufficiency in nuclear power generation and today, the 22 operating nuclear power reactors of the country, contribute 1.8 per cent (6,780 MW) of the total electricity generated in the country. In December 2018, a 220 MW unit of the Kaiga Atomic Power Station in Karnataka, broke the world record for the longest continuous operation (962 days) of a nuclear reactor. The previous record was of 940 days. This achievement is testament to India’s advancement in nuclear reactor technology, both in terms of the advanced electronics and instrumentation, which is responsible for the safety and control of the reactor, and the strength of the structural materials that can withstand extreme conditions of temperature, pressure and radiation.
In agriculture, BARC has developed 47 crop varieties, having improved characteristics like higher yield and improved disease resistance, which have been released for commercial cultivation in the country. Some of the very popular varieties are groundnut and rice, which are grown extensively. Other crop varieties include mustard, mung bean, cow peas, chick peas, etc.
Bhabhatron, the radiotherapy device developed by BARC, has revolutionised cancer treatment in the country by providing an affordable, high-performance Co-60 teletherapy machine. Bhabhatron units are installed in many cancer hospitals in India and are also exported to the Middle East, Africa, South America and Eastern Europe.
BARC does extensive research in radiation processed foods. Because of shelf life extension, such food products are both exported and sold in domestic markets. This has greatly helped in the preservation, storage, distribution and export of large quantities of agricultural produce. The wholesomeness and nutritional adequacy of irradiated food has been well accepted nationally by Ministry of Food Processing Industries and internationally by World Health Organiszation (WHO).
BARC has proven its mettle even in technologies that do not use radiation. Some of the noteworthy achievements include technologies for water treatment, waste management and material research. There are several technologies related to water, including ones that detect contamination and produce clean drinking water.Domestic water purifiers that are completely passive; kits for the detection of chromium and fluoride, and removal of fluoride, iron and arsenic from water, and a membrane pouch for water purification, which is especially useful during natural disasters, are some of the promising indigenous technologies developed by BARC and are being deployed at a large scale.The Nisargruna plant is a successful technology developed by BARC for composting biodegradable waste to high quality manure and methane gas. It can be easily set up to treat wet waste directly at the source, like in kitchens or canteens of big hospitals, hotels, factories and residential complexes.In advanced material research, a recent feat achieved by BARC is the Bhabha Kavach, a light-weight bulletproof jacket for the armed forces. These are made of high ballistic performance composite sheets (called BARC Nano-Sheets) which make the jackets weigh only about 6.6 kg compared to the 17 kg weight of conventional jackets.
The major developments by BARC in the fight against COVID-19 include use of radiation for disinfection of PPE kits for sterilisation/reuse, design of high-quality masks and development of a low-cost diagnostic kit.
The International Stage
BARC, as a part of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) is contributing significantly to some of the mega-scale science projects being implemented through international collaboration. Some of these projects include the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) with CERN, Facility for Anti-proton and Ion Research (FAIR), India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO), etc.BARC, with a strong workforce of 14,000 employees including 4,500 scientists, continues to strive to achieve security for the nation in terms of energy, agriculture, health, water, food and homeland security, using the power of the most humble atom. About the author: Remya Haridasan worked at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai, for six years and is currently working as a scientist on deputation to the Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, New Delhi