The villagers of Mothakara, Kerala have benefited from an Amrita Live-in-Labs® project to design, develop and implement solar thermal powered lemongrass essential-oil distilleries, sustainably reviving a generations-old source of income.

Over the past several years, the village of Mothakara, located in the Wayanad District of Kerala, has faced severe economic instability. Lemongrass is prolific in Wayanad and traditionally the people of this village prospered through the production and sale of its oil. Most people know the lemongrass plant for the lemony zing it brings to cooked dishes, but it also has several health benefits and uses, making its oil extremely valuable. It is commonly used as an antiseptic and mosquito repellent; can soothe headaches, nerve disorders, and muscle pain; treat digestive disorders and promote appetite; strengthen the body’s immunity against coughs and colds; make skin softer and hair healthier; and is a source of vitamins A, C, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, and folate.

Unfortunately for the people of Mothakara, their method of using firewood as an energy source for distillation was both labour intensive and energy inefficient. It took village women a several-kilometer walk to the forest to collect 50kg of wood to create only 100-150mL of oil in a 2-hour distillation process. In addition, the distillation units were mostly owned by wealthy businessmen who paid minimal wages.

Ultimately, the government placed a ban on the use of firewood owing to its unsustainability, forcing the people of Mothakara to abandon the production of the oil and to seek jobs elsewhere. Many of them walked long distances to work in fields under exploitative wages, only just earning enough to feed their families. Others were unable to find work, causing several families to enter into poverty, and the village succumbed to a sustained state of economic depression.

This was the setting when the Amrita Live-in-Labs® team arrived in 2016. Live-in-Labs® is an academic program that brings students out of the classroom to places where their learning, creativity and problem-solving abilities can make a real difference. It facilitates the research, development, and deployment of sustainable solutions for current challenges faced by rural communities in India.

An impressive 60m2 solar dish consisting of hundreds of small mirrors provides enough energy to power the oil distillation unit

Guided by Amrita’s Chancellor, Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi (lovingly known as Amma), the Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham component of the team consisted of faculty members, students, and staff from the Department of Chemical Engineering and Material Sciences, the Amrita Center for Advanced Materials and Green Technologies, and the Amrita Center for International Programs. They collaborated with students from Delft University of Technology (Netherlands) and Grenoble INP (France), creating an international, multi-disciplinary team covering subject areas from engineering to social work to business.

They worked with the people of Mothakara to understand their situation and determined that self-reliance was a key for moving forward.

After several brainstorming sessions, they realised that another renewable power source could be used to continue their generations-old practice of producing lemongrass oil, and the idea of a solar thermal-based steam distillation unit was born.

For the first phase of the project, Dr. Udaya Baskar Reddy Ragula, Faculty Supervisor and Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, School of Engineering, Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Coimbatore Campus, worked with his students, Challa Mahesh Reddy, Nidhin T. Madhu, and Prithvi G., to design a unique prototype containing three components: an energy source, a steam generation tank and a distillation unit.

The energy source is perhaps the most impressive part of the design, harnessing the energy of the sun. It is a 60m2 dish made up of hundreds of small mirrors that redirect solar beams on the steam generation tank which is filled with water. The focal point of the redirected beam reaches up to 600 degrees Celsius and heats the water very efficiently (and comes with a rather appropriate warning: Stay out of the way of that beam!) A small electromotor turns the dish at a small angle with the movement of the sun, keeping the focal point on the tank at all times.

The heated water generates steam which is then pumped through to the distillation unit. The steam extracts oil from the lemongrass and the resulting oil and water droplets are led to an oil-water separator. The water is then recycled back to the water tank leaving a high-quality lemongrass oil product which simply needs to be filtered through the paper before bottling. The solar-steam method is highly efficient, avoids many of the impurities resulting from the previous wood-powered method, and produces a superior product.

Top view of the distillation unit

Speaking about the project, Dr. Udaya said, “I had a chance to take the core Chemical Engineering skills to design a technology system that could be practically implemented for the genuine societal benefit through income generation and improvement of livelihood of a tribal village... Many staff members and students, including international students, worked to make this project a reality. I am extremely delighted to have been able to apply my interest in Chemical Engineering towards the betterment of a community.”

Further steps in the project were deployment and testing, training of the village women to use the distillation-unit and setting up an ongoing business and marketing plan to ensure consistent income and growth into the future. Overall, the 3-year project has been a huge success, bringing a second source of revenue for village-women and empowering a village. It is a testament to the vision of the Live-in-Labs® program: spanning multiple disciplines, involving collaboration with International universities and, most importantly, breaking classroom barriers by applying learned theory in real-world settings.

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