October 23, 2002


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The Rediff Profile/V M Naik

M D Riti meets V M Naik, who is responsible for some amazing scientific and technological breakthroughs in India.

Remember the excitement that the first transparent toothpaste to be made in India generated way back in the 1970s? The man whose work largely enabled launching of Close-Up three decades ago still finds the same excitement in his work that existed then. That's why he is still in the same lab in the same corporate house, Hindustan Lever. Only, he now leads what is one of the world's premium industrial research labs, located just outside Bangalore. His work frequently features in some of the most highly rated scientific journals in the world.

"Many high-calibre scientists have moved out of the lab into development departments in factories, higher up to heading technical functions and then even into the management chain of Unilever," says V M Naik, deputy head of laboratory, Hindustan Lever Research Centre and Unilever Research India. "I find my job so intellectually stimulating that I remain glued to it!"

From Close-Up to revolutionary new ice cream vending pushcarts for Walls ice creams has been an exciting journey for the bearded, amiable scientist, whose eyes gleam with enjoyment as he talks about his work. "One of the first projects I worked on was to develop, for the first time in India, a process for the industrial manufacture of abrasive grade silica which are used in making Close-Up toothpaste," says the man who joined the laboratory upon graduation from the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, in 1970.

"This toothpaste called for an appropriate abrasive for teeth and, whose refractive index matched the other ingredients, so that it remains transparent. Only W R Grace and Crosfield Chemicals had done this before, and they kept this process a closely guarded secret. It was a challenge to us, not only to develop this process but also scale it right up to factory standards," he says.

Each product area he worked on was so totally different from the previous and therefore very interesting and rejuvenating. The next problem that Naik helped to solve was that of substituting cocoa butter, the fat extracted from cocoa seeds, which is a key ingredient of chocolate, with a compound that has the same characteristics. This was because cocoa butter had become very scarce and therefore very expensive, two decades ago. It is this ingredient that gives chocolate that special quality of being hard when held in your hand, and then melting in your mouth the minute it touches your palate. This is because cocoa butter melts at 37 degrees centigrade, which is the temperature of the mouth.

"This was in a sense a continuation of our work in converting non-conventional oils that were not suitable for edible purposes into upgraded oils that could be used in the manufacture of soaps," he says. "We came across certain oils that are the by-products of forests in India and that had the potential to replace cocoa butter in chocolate. We found that some tribes use the seeds of the Sal tree to make low-grade soaps and also for edible purposes.

"Chocolate must not be mushy in the carton, but must melt inside your mouth. It also gives a cooling sensation inside the mouth. My colleague, Dr Bringy found that Sal butter also contains a similar triglyceride, and would be a wonderful substitute for cocoa butter. We developed a process to upgrade a very low-grade Sal fat, which was available in the market, into a purified triglyceride."

They used the process of chromatography to separate the impurities from Sal fat. When Naik and his team reported their success to Unilever, some veterans were not particularly thrilled with their work, because they pointed out that a delicate separation technique like chromatography could only be used in the labs, not in factories. So how could this wonderful research help the company make chocolate without cocoa butter?

However, Naik and his co-researchers actually achieved the near impossible and became possibly the second company in the world to scale chromatography up to industrial levels and use it in the factory. "This is one of the most challenging scale ups I have done in my life. We had to ensure that no channelling took place in the three-meter diameter chromatographic columns, and various streams used in the process did not get mixed up because of some small hold-ups in a pipe or a wrongly turned valve," he says proudly.

Then came a proposal to make a clinical thermometer without mercury. "We became the first to develop a technology for making equally reliable thermometers using plain water in place of mercury, for clinical use," says Naik. "Mercury is very toxic, so it would be great to replace it."

Then came the ice cream problem. The average annual consumption of ice cream in the US is 10 litres per person. But in hot, arid India, it is only 0.05 litres per person. "Why should not all Indian children have an ice cream cone when they feel like it?" Dr C K Prahalad, professor of corporate strategy, Michigan Business School, had asked. "It is because it is unaffordable to the masses. A breakdown of the cost of ice cream shows that up to half its cost is the high cost of refrigeration.

Ice cream has to be kept at a temperature of -18 degrees centigrade. In the carts currently in use, coolants that are corrosive, toxic and very heavy are used to keep ice cream cold. That naturally led to a high risk of leakage of coolants into the ice cream. If ice cream consumption in India were to go up just 10 times to half a litre per person per annum, India would need an additional 2.5 billion kilowatts of electricity.

Naik and his research team applied its expertise in chemical engineering and materials science to develop a eutectic coolant system that is not toxic or corrosive, need a little over half the amount of coolant and last half as much longer.

Prahalad was one of the first to praise the new find on hearing about it. "Imagine the opportunities when this type of innovation is applied to develop a refrigeration platform for not just ice-cream, but also vegetables, diary, fish, meat, and even medicine," he points out. "The new coolant is almost edible in itself, and is cheaper than other such coolants the world over."

"My colleagues and I are so happy to have been able to make such useful contributions not just to our company, but to the country, and even the global economy itself," says Naik modestly. "Finding practical solutions to challenging industrial problems actually calls for an in-depth understanding of their scientific underpinnings. Few people realise this about industrial research."

And if Naik continues to be as successful in his research, he will soon bring out shampoo in cakes like soap. This is one of the next areas of research he is working on. He is also trying to design soap-like cleaning agent, that are far better cleansers, much milder, more fragrant and bubbly than conventional soaps, as we know them now the world over.

Image: Rahil Shaikh

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