For the last few years, an annual ranking of Indian chemical engineering schools, based on volume of research conducted, has consistently put an institute little known outside the world of science and technology at the top of the heap.
The University Institute of Chemical Technology (UICT), Mumbai, beats even the renowned Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) with 614 published research papers between 2002 and 2006, according to Jude Sommerfield, a senior faculty member at the US-based Georgia Institute of Technology, who conducts similar surveys for engineering institutes around the world.
Centre of excellence: A UICT student at the lab of the institute’s famed chemical engineering department
The finding reflects the respect the university is accorded in Indian scientific circles. Now, UICT is looking to raise its global profile—even as domestic institutes look to it as a role model to meet industry demands for more meaningful partnerships and innovation.
Located in the heart of Mumbai at Matunga, the institute is spread over a verdant 16-acre campus and is at the epicentre of some of the best pioneering work in chemical technology—a significant turnaround since its 1934 founding as a department of the University of Bombay to assist fledgling industries.
In the years after independence, it advised thetextile industry on yarn processing; subsequently, it started providing inputs tothe chemicals, drugs, and plastics and polymers industries. Today, apart from its best known programme in chemical engineering, UICT runs undergraduate programmes in technology courses in seven chemical disciplines and pharmacy. UICT was granted autonomy in 2002.
Recently, the department of biotechnology funded India’s first Centre of Energy Biosciences at the institute at a cost of Rs24 crore. The centre will focus on developing renewable energy resources to reduce India’s dependence on petroleum fuels and cut down emissions of greenhouse gases. Meanwhile, the department of atomic energy has granted Rs70 crore to develop cheaper sources of energy and work is under way on various projects including some viable solar energy products. The institute is also one of the few in the world to work on green chemistry, which basically uses biological catalysts—such as enzymes—to carry out a chemical reaction. The benefits are manifold: These reactions are specific and there is lesser risk of contamination or pollution.
As an undergraduate student, Sachin Mathpati recalls he had to design a financially viable facility for the production of nicotinic acid, a vitamin preparation. Now pursuing his PhD in chemical engineering, he lauds “a unique course structure with a thrust on the real problems faced by the industry.” Adds Mathpati, who hails from Solapur in Maharashtra: “I don’t think other institutes provide that kind of exposure at this level.”
Indeed, the university’s constant connection to industry helps its research remain relevant and current, says K.V. Mariwala, former director at Marico Ltd (formerly Bombay Oil Industries Ltd) and a UICT alumnus.
“Because of this constant interface, the institute’s faculty and students are very clued into the needs of the industry and business gets an opportunity to observe what is happening in the academic world,” he says.
A recent survey conducted by the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, rated the institute as the best in the relevance of academic research to industry and transfer of technology. And a separate government report on technical education authored by P. Rama Rao, former secretary, ministry of science and technology, picked UICT as an example for other institutes to emulate.
“It has accomplishments in all spheres of academic activity—teaching, research and consultancy,” Rao said. “From its early days, it has had exceptional leaders at its helm.”
In its latest annual report, the institute pegs its external earnings at Rs24 crore, while it received a fraction of that, Rs6 crore, in funding from the state government. In comparison, the last Union Budget distributed Rs1,553.70 crore to the seven IITs.
More than 1,200 students are enrolled in various courses, out of which almost 900 are undergraduates. While most of UICT’s seats are reserved for students within the state of Maharashtra, the institute receives more than 1,000 applications for the 30% (about 50) seats that are open to students from across the country.
Notable alumni include R.A. Mashelkar, former director, Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research; Mukesh Ambani, head of Reliance Industries Ltd; K. Anji Reddy, founder and chairman of Dr Reddy’s Laboratories Ltd; and eminent chemical engineering scholar M.M. Sharma, who was also director of UICT. H.N. Sethna, former chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, and B.D. Tilak, former director, National Chemical Laboratory, are also UICT alumni.
The imposing stone façade of the institute’s main building is a landmark in the Matunga area of central Mumbai. Inside, students in white lab coats saunter around thecorridors, some with apparatuses in their hands. Most of the laboratories are abuzz with students and faculty carrying out experiments.
Beyond the main building are more edifices separated by patches of greenery, that house other departments. Some of them are not as impressive as the main building, wearing the look of typical government buildings—coated in dust and somewhat rundown—making it seem almost surreal that cutting-edge scientific research happens here.
The physical appearance reflects a challenge UICT leaders themselves articulate. Further investments in infrastructure are planned, alongside construction of new academic buildings and addition of new equipment. UICT is also considering becoming a deemed university, which means that it can access Central government funds. “The lack of funds and the faculty shortage are serious concerns that could cramp the institute’s future growth,” says Ravi Raghavan, a UICT alumnus and editor of Chemical Weekly, a publication catering to the chemical industry.
UICT has a sanctioned faculty strength of 103 but at present its faculty strength is only about 70. Another concern, according to Mariwala, is that a significant number of its faculty members are alumni of the institute. He points to the case of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1970s, where a similar situation led to its decline until it was forced to look elsewhere for talent.
“The institute should be cautious of the perils of in-breeding,” says Mariwala. “It is better to bring talent from outside the institute. They just might bring in fresh ideas that could take the institute forward into the big league.”
He added that while chemical engineering is stellar, the other departments have “lots of room for improvement.”
Agrees G.D. Yadav, head of the chemical engineering department and dean of research, consultancy and resource mobilization: “We believe we have the capabilities. What we need is resources and we are actively working towards making our vision a reality.”