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The appointment of lithium ion expert N Kalaiselvi, director of Central ElectroChemical Research Institute at Karaikudi, as the Director General of the country premier research body, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), is both a symbolic as well as practical decision. Appointed on Saturday, the new DG will also be the Secretary to the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and will lead the CSIR for two years.

As a woman scientist hailing from Ambasamudram in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district, Kalaiselvi is symbolic of the increasing role played by women scientists in cutting edge technologies in government institutions including in the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). Speaking at a meeting ‘Women I Aspire’, a program identifying women in leadership roles, she attributed her successful career as a woman scientist to the infinite freedom she received from her parents.

She has received the most inspiring woman scientist award. Medals and honours are not new to her — she was the recipient of the Materials Research Society Medal, followed by the C.V. Raman Mahila Vijnana Puraskara. An enthusiast of Tamil literature, she is a good orator, quoting Tamil prose and poetry at meetings. (Source : Youtube)

Crucial technology
As a scientist and manager, Kalaiselvi is expected to spearhead India’s lithium mastery — a crucial technology for batteries that are transforming energy systems across the world amid fossil fuel-driven climate change.

A perfect fit for the challenging role, Kalaiselvi has over 25 years of experience in the field of electrochemistry and assumed the role of CECRI’s director in 2019. With an area of expertise encompassing lithium batteries, supercapacitors and waste-to-wealth driven electrodes and electrolytes for energy storage systems and applications, Kalaiselvi’s role in clean energy transport can be significant. She served as the nodal scientist in the MULTIFUN project, which dealt with Multifunctional electrodes & electrolytes in futuristic technologies. She also drafted the technical report for the Centre’s flagship National Mission for Electrical Mobility (NMEM) and was part of the Mobility Mission. She has six patents and 125 research papers to her credit.

As a woman scientist hailing from Ambasamudram in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district, Dr. Kalaiselvi is symbolic of the increasing role played by women scientists in cutting edge technologies in government institutions including in the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO)

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Retention challenge
The new CSIR DG
, however, will face not just technical challenges with India’s transition to electric vehicles and clean energy but also administrative hurdles that are driving some of India’s best young researchers and scientists to institutions abroad. In the tug of war between institutional administrations and scientific research, the casualty is often good researchers.

“This is definitely a very good move for the CSIR, the controlling body of scientific and industrial research, to get a woman head. We would be more happy if this helps in bringing down the number of the researchers especially women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) leaving India,” says Sujoy Chakraborty, senior journalist, who writes on science and research.

Seetha Somasundaram, program director and Minal Rohit, project manager working on the Mars Orbiter Mission of ISRO. Women have taken on increasingly key role in cutting edge science missions of the government (Photo credit: Screengrab: Breakthrough snapshots from afar)

Many researchers leave the country due to lack of adequate laboratory infrastructure and monetary support. Further due to the rigid administrative setup of government funded institutions, they tend to leave fundamental science and move to technology firms like Microsoft, Google with better career and economic prospects.

“They move abroad to finish their post-doc research citing lack of support. Now that they are upgraded, they won’t come back unless they find a conducive atmosphere here,” Mr. Chakraborty said.

An ISRO scientist working in the field of glass and ceramics, who requested anonymity, said Kalaiselvi’s role as techno-manager is pivotal. “We have moved to lithium-ion batteries, away from nickel-hydrate ones. It is not hype if we say that we are surrounded by lithium-ion batteries — from mobiles and trimmers to our vehicles — and we foresee electric propulsion of rockets,” he said.

With her vast expertise, Kalaiselvi could, therefore, be crucial in her techno-managerial role in moving forward with the mission towards clean energy

He noted that automobile industries are in a rush to upgrade to electric mobility, buying patents and signing MoUs to update their packaged energy source systems i.e batteries. These industries will face a supply chain problem in sourcing lithium cobaltoxide or lithium ironoxide, which India imports. The country’s need will grow exponentially. There is the added problem of e-wastes. There is a scope for proper recycling of the minerals, rectifying the issues with electrodes and so on, the scientist said.

“We have e-mobility and alternate energy sources gaining significance and their problems of efficiency, sustainability and affordability. Also there is the compulsion to move away from coal and oil. At this juncture, devising cutting edge technologies to cater to these energy industries and institutes gains importance,” he said.

With her vast expertise in lithium ion, Kalaiselvi could, therefore, be crucial in her techno-managerial role in moving forward with the mission towards clean energy. Having a good rapport with home department CECRI would ease administrative hurdles that research work could face.

The CSIR director’s role is more administrative rather than research. But the director is a scientist, whose area of expertise is as wide as experimental science. She could naturally connect to the scientists at the more than 38 institutes and labs in CSIR.


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