Creating Groundbreaking Solutions

Interview with IdeaConnection problem solver Ahilan Raman
By Paul Arnold
Ahilan Raman is the Director of Clean Energy and Water Technologies in Australia. He has more than 35 years industrial and business experience, and holds national and international patents on seawater desalination. He also has his own blog where he writes about clean energy.

As an IdeaConnection problem solver he has provided winning solutions to seekers. In this interview Ahilan talks about his contribution to a successful challenge team and the groundbreaking new desalination technology he is pioneering.

photo of Ahilan RamanI had a challenge from IdeaConnection to find a coating material to coat on a polymer film, a packaging film for food. The seeker needed a coating which can inhibit the transmission of oxygen and moisture into a package, so that the shelf-life of the product can be enhanced. This is actually a very large industry, worth many millions of dollars.

It’s a very important solution. It looks simple, just a liquid coating to improve the shelf-life by six months and one year. But the seeker was not aware of the solution and it took a while for them to understand what was needed. They thought a simple coating was required.

If you want to replace the aluminum foil, the plastic with the coating then it’s not going to happen. That’s because aluminum is completely impermeable to any transmission of oxygen or moisture, whereas a polymer film can transmit because of its permeability. But if somebody can come up with a solution that can make a plastic film more like an aluminum foil, and at the same time you can still see the product inside, that would be fantastic.

A number of industries around the world are interested in this particular solution. So that was very interesting for me because you need knowledge of polymers, plastics, metals and coating methods and how to formulate the solution. It involves an enormous number of disciplines, and we were successful in this particular challenge.

Before you started to work on the challenge, did you have an idea of what the solution might be?

Yes I did. There’s something called retort sterilization. You can prepare your food and pack it in a plastic pouch and seal it hermetically. Then sterilize it at a high temperature, say about one hundred and forty degrees Celsius for a very short time, say less than a minute. Then you can take the pouch and keep it in room temperature and it will have a shelf life of more than one year.

I had a lot of experience in this field because the first plant for retort food in India was set up by me in 1993. So when I read the challenge I knew immediately what they were looking for. They weren’t looking for sterilization; they wanted a packaging material to stop the transmission of oxygen and moisture. Overall it was a very good experience and the seeker gained a lot of knowledge from our efforts.

Let’s move on to your own work. What are you involved in at the moment?

Now I am fully concentrating on renewable energy. In fact I recently applied for a US patent as well as PCT (patent cooperation treaty) for other countries for an innovative technology for desalination. As you know desalination of sea water is a big subject and a lot of countries around the world are facing a huge shortage of fresh water.

The problem here with the existing technology is that it can only recover thirty to forty percent of fresh water. The rest is highly saline water polluted with toxic chemicals that goes back into the sea and affects marine life.

So I have come up with an innovative technology where you can recover salt as well as fresh water so you don’t discharge anything back into the ocean. And once you have salt with high purity, it’s got enormous industrial applications; the whole range of chemicals - from plastics to PVC to heavy chemicals – all require salt as a raw material. I’m currently discussing with large multinational companies to license this technology.

So just to recap. You have developed a technology that extracts a large amount of pure salt on one hand and also large quantities of fresh clean water on the other?

Yes that’s correct. My technology will be enormously useful. There are also a number of industrial plants in coastal areas of India where they have to get salt at an enormous cost and in a very primitive way. My technology can produce salt in the same day, where currently you may have to wait one year to harvest the salt. I hope this technology can change a lot of things.

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