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Summer 2014 Blog - Rory Runser

Rory Runser is spending the summer at the Indian Institute of Technolgy in Kharagpur

August 11, 2014

The last weeks of my stay at IIT were incredibly busy, as I was finishing my experiments, compiling data, and preparing a written report for my professor. We concluded our biomass studies, and found the optimal air flow rate for running our bioreactor. I also studied the lipid content of our algae, and analyzed its composition with Gas Chromatography to determine if it was suitable for biofuels. Some of the samples showed promising results, so hopefully an improved extraction technique can be perfected in the near future to improve the lipid quantity and quality we are generating.

I also did some hydrodynamic studies of our reactor. Most importantly, we measured the mass-transfer coefficient of carbon dioxide into our reactor, which is dependent on reactor geometry and inlet air flow rate. This is done by bubbling nitrogen into water until there is no dissolved oxygen, and then bubbling air to allow the oxygen concentration to increase again. Monitoring the change in dissolved oxygen concentration over time allows one to calculate the mass-transfer coefficient of oxygen into water. This in turn is converted into the coefficient for carbon dioxide. This value is extremely important for algae growth, since a low mass-transfer means the algae won’t have any carbon dioxide available to convert into biomass.

We also calculated mixing time and circulation time within our reactor by adding concentrated acid and monitoring pH change over time; the fluctuations in pH indicated a complete circulation of fluid, and eventually the pH flattened out after its defined “mixing time.” These hydrodynamic values are also very important for biomass growth, as they affect circulation patterns and exposure to light within the reactor.

After two exhausting weeks of labwork and report-writing, I gave my final presentation to the faculty members of the P. K. Sinha Center for Bioenergy, which has been coordinating my program in India. All of them were very happy with the work I contributed, and my professor hopes the report I made will become a manuscript for a journal publication in the near future. I feel like I learned so much about the field of biotechnology in the short eight weeks I was there, and I am incredibly grateful to all the members of my lab who helped me learn about the science and culture I was immersed in.

During my final weeks, I also travelled extensively. I visited the Delhi and the Taj Mahal, which are located nowhere near West Bengal and required trains, planes, buses, and rickshaws to reach. The trip was probably my favorite weekend in India, and I befriended a number of travelers during the trip, and we compared our experiences of traveling in India. We could all relate to having our picture taken by locals, as well as regularly getting sick from the food.

I also visited Sundarbans National Park, home of the Royal Bengal Tiger, with a French intern from my hall named Hugo. We didn’t see any tigers, but being in the jungle after two months at a university was a refreshing change. The tour was with an eclectic bunch of characters from all over the world, and we bonded over our various reasons for being in India.

Now I am back in the USA, eating fresh bread, salads, peaches, and absolutely no curries. I certainly had a number of challenging times in India, but I also had innumerable fantastic experiences, and can’t wait to return some day. I’m very grateful to the Cal Energy Corps for providing me this opportunity, and I hope the work I have done will contribute to the field of bioenergy and help India work towards reducing its carbon emissions in the future.



Goodbye dinner with Professor Sen’s lab


Good weather at IIT Kharagpur Campus


Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi


Taj Mahal


Hiking in the mud in Sundarbans National Park

July 13th, 2014

I can’t believe I am now half-way done with my stay in India! Research has been progressing well, even though biology-related research often takes much longer than the chemical synthesis that I do back home (weeks vs hours). I finished running my first bioreactor experiment, which involved bubbling air through a cylindrical reactor for two weeks while the algae inside slowly grew. The goal is for the algae to generate lipids which can be converted into biofuels or other useful products. We ran two reactors at different inlet air flow rates, to see how it would affect algal growth. We anticipate that a higher flow rate would yield a better growth rate, since it would increase the mass transfer effects of carbon dioxide in the air into the aqueous phase. However, increasing the air flow too much can actually rip apart the cells, so we are still trying to hone in on the optimal flow rate. I spent last week extracting lipids from samples we took each day, and we will be analyzing these extracts next week using Gas Chromatography.



Since I come from a chemical engineering background, I have also been tasked with doing some theoretical modelling of the reactors. With some help from a graduate student who did his PhD thesis on Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD), we have already generated a simple model for fluid flow within our reactor. Now that the geometry and boundary conditions are set, I have begun changing the inlet conditions to see if I can optimize the fluid flow properties, and will be looking at changing the geometry next week. I am excited to see where this research leads, as my professor here has said that the results will be sent off to a manufacturing company, who will ultimately build the reactor I design.

Despite being at one of the top universities in India, we are still plagued by a general lack of funding from the government, resulting in various tubes and containers being washed and reused, (at home they would be discarded after a single use) and some questionable waste disposal methods. Nevertheless, I am very impressed with the quality of work output here, which is on par with what would be generated at UC Berkeley. Still, I’m looking forward to using new Falcon Tubes once I get home.

Outside of the lab I have had the chance to do some travelling around the state of West Bengal. Two weeks ago I visited Calcutta, which in my view captures every aspect of an Indian city that we might envision back home: crowded streets, lots of people, lots of cows, and kind of crazy in general. It was definitely a big change from the calm associated with rural India where the university is.


Belur Math Temple in Calcutta

Then this weekend I went to the Bay of Bengal with a Nigerian PhD exchange student, Bunmi. The beach was definitely not up to Californian standards but the trip was a lot of fun, and we got stared at by everyone – something I am getting used to here.


Visiting Digha Beach at the Bay of Bengal

June 22nd, 2014

I have been in India for just over a week, and am finally starting to adjust to the heat and humidity. I landed in Kolkata last Friday, and was driven to IIT Kharagpur the next morning, about a 3-hour drive. Once here, I was dropped off at my room within the university compounds. Fortunately, the room has AC, which has been on the “turbo” setting since I arrived. In the evening, a graduate student from my lab, Ankush, picked me up to bring me to the Tech Market to purchase food and other supplies. The tech market is surprisingly well-equipped, though it is often hard to convey to the vendors what I want, since they can’t really understand my accent (and I, in turn, can’t understand theirs). Over the past week, I have become a regular customer at the market to purchase sugarcane juice, coconuts, and Indian sweets from a confectionary store. I also found Corn Flakes, which saves me from having to eat Indian food three times a day; as much as I love the food here, I think I’ll pass on having a curry for breakfast!

On Monday, Ankush came by and showed me the lab I would be working in. This summer I am working in the Biotechnology department for Professor Ramkrishna Sen. I got a tour of the lab, which is full of Erlenmeyer flasks containing green algae. There are also some bubble column reactors which have a CO2 source bubbling through them to increase algae production rate. The goal is to harvest useful lipids from the algae that could ultimately be converted into a fuel source. My project this summer is to use flue gas from a coal-fired power plant as the CO2 source, thus reducing CO2 emissions while converting the exhaust into a viable product. Seeing the lab was very exciting as it is completely different from both what I study and do research in at UC Berkeley, though I’m hoping my background in chemical engineering will enable me to study the kinetics of the algae reactors and look into redesigning them for optimal growth rates. Most of this week was spent reading up on the subject in order to be more familiar with past research in the field, and I’m excited to starting labwork next week.


Flue-gas fed photobioreactors

The people in the lab have been incredibly friendly and welcoming. Ankush regularly checks in and asks about my project. Geetanjali and Dinesh who also work with biofuels have been very friendly as well, as has Jai, the undergrad who lives a nocturnal lifestyle and helped me procure a bike. The professor invited me to chai the second day I was here and then drove me to the hospital to get a medical exam for my swimming pool membership card. All in all, I’m feeling very welcomed by the lab group. I have also gotten to meet various people from outside of the lab. All the students here are very friendly and many have helped me out when in situations of linguistic disadvantage.

I have gotten to know some people on my floor, as well as students who are staying here for the summer, so I am slowly building up a friend network. So, despite the fact that I am the only student from UC Berkeley here, I am beginning to feel like part of the community here.

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