By Sarah Marten
Professor Andreas Hornung is Professor of Chemical Engineering and Head of the European Bioenergy Research Institute at Aston University. He is based in the School of Engineering and Applied Science within the Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry Academic Group. Professor Hornung also works closely with the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, spending periods of time there each year to undertake ground-breaking research into bioenergy which potentially reduces dependency on fossil fuels. For example, algae found in sewage sludge can eventually be turned into hidden power. This has far-reaching implications for India and beyond, but in particular for poor rural communities which urgently need to find affordable fuels to run their farm machinery or to produce local heat/cooling and power. Professor Hornung recently talked to us about his interesting work
How did your work in India come about?
My links with India have developed out of a collaborative project between Aston University and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Delhi. At present I spend several weeks a year in India, which involves working with colleagues in academia and industry, as well as delivering seminars to postgraduate students.
What does your research involve?
I am developing bioenergy systems for heat and power, both small and medium scale, mostly for rural farming communities in India. They have some access to power at the moment, but this is expensive and there is a pressing need to develop alternatives. Various products, such as animal dung, and residue from straw and rice can be used to produce gases which be developed into bio-based engine fuels.
We use a technique called Pyrolysis, which is the thermo-chemical decomposition of a substance that occurs when it is heated to a temperature of about 400 °C without oxygen. This has enabled us to create a mini plant fuelled by renewable and waste sources. Back in Birmingham, we are also using these same technologies to develop bioenergy sources for the City, thus helping to meet local Birmingham 2026 targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
What about your teaching at the Indian Institute of Technology?
I deliver seminars to groups of around 30 students, mostly postgraduate and postdoctoral students, in bioenergy topics such as biomass and reactor engineering. The IIT students are highly motivated and many bring expertise and experience in this field. Language is not an issue as everyone speaks, reads and writes good English. I would like to learn Hindi, which would inevitably be quite a challenge, although my lack of the local language has not been a barrier. Teaching at the IIT is always conducted in English.
What are the Indian students like?
As an experienced academic I am used to working with students from all over the world. With the Indian students I have observed some important cultural differences. Winning the students’ respect at the beginning is important, and may take longer in India than in other countries. The students really need to be certain that you are trustworthy. However, once you have won their trust, the Indian students are extremely supportive, loyal and reliable.
How is the Higher Education Sector in India different to that in other countries?
In my own discipline of chemical engineering I have found things to be very different to anything I have encountered before. You need to be ready for this if you are planning to work in India!
To start with there is a completely different way of handling laboratory equipment and undertaking pilot experiments. The way in which Indian research institutions operate with greater freedom is very different to the constraints you find operating in European institutions. Health and safety legislation, for example, is very different in India. In many ways India nowadays is very like Europe was 25 years ago. This has both pros and cons, and is simply something academics need to be aware of. Part of my job involves raising and maintaining standards, and there are lots of highly skilled and qualified people to help with this.
What happens to your work back at Aston University when you go to India?
I usually make several trips to India a year, each of fairly short duration. Ideally I would like to be in two places at once, but since this is not possible I always make sure I keep in regular touch with my colleagues back at Aston by email and phone. However, it is also important that I have regular face-to-face contact with my team in the UK – they need to see me and to be assured that I care about the work we are all engaged in. As I am starting to spend longer periods in India, this becomes more of a challenge.
My professorial role in the UK has many strands including various teaching commitments to undergraduate and postgraduate students, and I therefore need to be extremely organised in order to take time out to go to India. My overall aim is to get the systems running to develop these exciting technologies in Europe as well as India.
What sort of accommodation do you have in India?
The IIT has a guest house on the campus for visiting academic staff and I always stay there, preferring this simple accommodation to an impersonal and expensive hotel room. It also saves unnecessary travel across Delhi, and gives me the opportunity to meet other international academics and local people. Meals are provided, and the whole package costs £5 a day!
What was it like when you first arrived in India?
I was very fortunate to be visiting India for the first time with an Indian student who had been working with me for some years. Arriving in India without knowing anyone would otherwise have been very difficult.
As with all first-time visitors to India, the first thing that strikes you is the poverty which hits you in the face on arrival. The poor are often living in plastic shelters, which perhaps lean on the fence of a large company. I had been expecting something like this, but the extent of the poverty was shocking and hard to take in. Some rural peasants have to walk 30 km each day for water.
This experience changes you, and when I came back to Europe I found my outlook on life and thinking had shifted. Working in India had improved my ability to deal with difficulties, and I found that I didn’t always need high tech solutions to solve problems. Basically my perspective altered.
What are some of the other challenges of life in India?
A popular way to buy food is from stalls on the street, but in my experience this should be avoided as it can lead to food poisoning. In the same way care must be taken with drinking water, and I drink bottled water where possible. Even when you are careful it can be difficult to avoid occasional stomach bugs in India.
The Indian weather is mostly hot and sometimes humid, and takes some acclimatisation for those unused to these conditions. The months between May and July are the most humid, whereas January and February are much more bearable in terms of temperature and humidity.
Did you need a visa or vaccinations?
I was fortunate in that Aston University organised all the visa paperwork for me. I needed to fill in some forms, and the visa took about a month to arrive, but everything went very smoothly. Vaccinations are not essential
What is the social life like?
People are very friendly and I am often invited out to meals at local restaurants with colleagues at the IIT. Along with my whole family I have also been invited to a wedding, and so I feel very accepted here in India and part of the community.
There is not a great deal of time for travel and sightseeing, although I have been to the Taj Mahal, which was a very moving experience. It is an exciting and wonderful place.
How do your family feel about you working overseas?
I am married with two young children, and in fact they are based in Germany, so even when I am back in the UK I only see my family at weekends. They are used to me be being away, and are very supportive. This is vital. At this stage I would not want to bring my young family with me whilst I worked in India, so the present arrangement works well.
How will your experience of working in India benefit your career?
Having achieved professorial status in the UK and being head of EBRI (The European Bioenergy Research Institute, which I founded at Aston) I have already achieved many of my career goals. However, I want to ensure that my work and scientific developments have international benefits. For me, improving the everyday life of people living in India is particularly important. My mission is to raise standards of life in India and to realise this through the technologies I am working on. At the same time this will also benefit me personally, but this is not the driving force. Along with my Indian colleagues, we are designing the first prototype for the processing plant in India. In some ways I am astonished that I have helped to make this happen.
What are you enjoying most about your work in India?
If everything goes according to plan my work will enable hundreds of thousands of people in India to have a better standard of life. This is a massive goal, but we are well on the way to achieving this. There has been a very positive response already, including further afield in the Punjab, where a new IIT is opening.
I have found India to be a very spiritual place and people are very open about discussing their values and what is important to them. Even the poorest people have an inner happiness, even though materially they have very little.
Is there anything you dislike?
As a westerner I need to take care when I go out in the evenings, and I try to prevent travelling alone after dark. The heat and humidity can be overbearing at times.
Have you got any advice for other academics planning to work overseas?
Before accepting a post overseas, make sure you know exactly what is involved. Scientists need to find out what equipment is available, as standards can vary in less developed countries. If possible, make a reconnaissance trip initially before moving overseas – I did this before coming to India and it was really beneficial.
Professor Andreas Hornung studied for his first degree at Technical University Darmstadt in Germany where he became a chemical engineer. He completed his Doctorate in Natural Sciences (PhD equivalent) at Technische Universitaet Kaiserslautern. Andreas gained initial experience as a graduate research assistant, and was leader of the Pyrolysis group at the University of Karlsruhe. He then worked as an engineering consultant for AHT Austria, on the development of the Haloclean Reactor System, before moving to Sea Marconi Technologies in Italy, encompassing a role that combined developing market strategies with project management. Andreas then became co-ordinator of the European projects in Haloclean conversion and application, whilst also working on contracts with the University of Karlsruhe, Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe and Sea Marconi, before moving to the Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe GmbH, Institute of Technical Chemistry as head of the pyrolysis/ gas treatment division.
Andreas later became a lecturer at the Technical University of Kaiserslautern, lecturing on the thermo-chemical treatment of biomass. Since 2007 he has been responsible for the management of the industrial application of the results of the project Haloclean-Intermediate Pyrolysis for combined pyrolysis and electrification of biomass for several companies including Michelin and Evonik. In 2007 Andreas was appointed to his current position at Aston University, and is now Director of the European Bioenergy Research Institute (EBRI), also based at Aston. Andreas is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, and a Fellow of the Institution of Chemical Engineers.