Fuelling future rockets of India through CSIR Technology

Launching of space shuttles from Sriharikota space station is an exciting event for all Indians particularly the children to watch on television for its successful placement in the orbit. The safe lift-off of the shuttle requires rocket fuel propellant fluids such as Hydrazine – one of the environmentally friendly fuel of approximately 129.2 gallons or 1,085 pounds loaded in the external tank of the shuttle. Besides, taking us to the space, Hydrazine (anhydrous or as hydrate) also influences our everyday lives by keeping us warm with clothes, foams & plastics (blowing agent), feeding us (intermediate maleic hydrazide in production of crop protection chemicals) saving our lives (medication in sickle cell disease & cancer) and several other uses.

Considering the extensive use of Hydrazine Hydrate (HH) and most importantly being the cleanest energy discovered by mankind, it seems strange that India imports around 14000 Tons per Annum (TPA) to meet the domestic demand of 40 000 TPA out of the 100,000 TPA global produce. Hence, CSIR-IICT has initiated an ambitious project 15 years ago to make sure that India becomes truly Aatmanirbhar by catering to the domestic demand of this important basic chemical. Thanks to sustained leadership of CSIR-IICT right from Dr. J S Yadav to Dr K. Lakshmi Kantham and Dr. S. Chandrasekhar for encouraging the HH technical team and extending the requisite support during the challenging times, so that despite several failures the complex technology for the simplest chemical has become a reality today.

The journey began with a small lab scale reactor at CSIR-IICT for 40% HH with few milligrams which later was graduated to 80% HH as per the demand with the seamless efforts placed by the excellent engineering expertise of team CSIR-IICT. Initially, several experiments were conducted at Lab scale 10g/hr followed by Bench scale 100g/hr and then it was scaled up to 12kg/hr Pilot plant that was designed and successfully commissioned / operated for more than a year. Around 400kg of HH was produced in the pilot plant, sent for seed marketing of the product that met international specifications. The pilot plant runs helped in exploring design and engineering innovations for the 10000TPA HH commercial plant. Reaction methods were optimized as per scale up needs and the challenges of impurities, concentration & purification issues were addressed. All the environment and economic challenges were also addressed by recoveries and recycling of key raw materials keeping in mind the process economics and viability. As mentioned earlier, on several occasions when failures were experienced during the course of the project, a need for closure was deliberated but the team pulled it off with undeterred encouragement and support given by the leadership both from CSIR-IICT and GACL.

Based on the innumerable experience gained, basic engineering package for 10000 TPA of 80% hydrazine hydrate commercial plant was prepared and transferred to GACL. The project cost is reasonable for the capacity planned and comparable to the investment made by the competitors with a payback period of 5-7 years. Eventually, the sincere efforts and risks led to fructification with commissioning of a 10,000 TPA plant at Dahej by GACL. A huge sum of Rs 450 Crores was invested by GACL for establishing the commercial plant and successful implementation by Larsen & Toubro Hydrocarbon Engineering, Mumbai (LTHE), Mumbai L & T has been phenomenal.

This project is a true example of Aatmanirbhar Bharath wherein the issues of logistics & supply chain management was circumvented by captive consumption of raw materials such that the commercial implications caused by price fluctuations could be handled under the Make in India program. Thus, it is essential for companies planning for commercially high investment plants to plan well in advance about the backward integration of raw material sourcing so as to avoid import dependency. HH technology has fetched CSIR-IICT several accolades such as FICCI R&D Award in 2017 & Golden Peacock Award in 2020 and a joint patent has been filed both in India & USA Finally,

As the saying of the Alchemist goes “When you want something, the whole universe conspires in order for you to achieve it”, the outstanding contribution of CSIR-IICT and GACL, the product will be successfully launched in March 2022 from the commercial plant of HH at Dahej, operated from a centralized distributed control system with minimum human interventions.

Kajjam Ravindranath
Shailaja Donempudi
Chandrasekhar Srivari