MUMBAI: A nuclear source sitting in an out-of-bounds basement of a distinguished heritage campus in south Mumbai will be moved out soon. At a time when the authorities of the Institute of Science were making plans to demolish an old single-storey structure and go skyward, old-timers pointed to the nuclear source — Californium-252 and Plutonium Beryllium — within the campus that needed to be safely relocatedfirst.Once assessed and rehomed, this will close a rich chapter in the history of the institute, which boasts a distinguished nuclear chemistry laboratory.
Envisioned by prominent scientist and institute head professor B C Haldar, the laboratory was set up in 1962 and grew into a full-fledged department in 1975. After some ground-breaking research, though, it declined due to lack of funds and attention from the state government. Long hobbled by lack of funds and running at less than half its staff strength, the institute saw help pouring in from corporate India. K C Mahindra Education Trust stepped in to set up a chair professor by donating Rs 3.25 lakh during the institute’s diamond jubilee. However, the lights were turned off when the last PhD student, David Manjula, graduated in 2003. Merely the nuclear source remains in the lab and now Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) has been contacted to remove it. The nuclear source has completed 14 half lives till date.

“We have not entered this premises. But it is a very old structure and is dilapidated now. We have written to BARC authorities to send their experts to remove this nuclear source. Once safely out, we plan to grow vertical after necessary permissions are received and expand our research in high-end areas that are at the heart of societal applications,” said Rajanish Kamat, vice-chancellor, Dr Homi Bhabha State University, a cluster university of which Institute of Science is a part.
Both nuclear sources were imported in late 1970s and early 1980s, recalled retired chemistry professor Arun Sawant, who went on to become vice-chancellor of Rajasthan University. He spoke of working with the nuclear source. “If a scientist gets exposed to radiation, they are advised 10 days of rest, but in the history of this lab, no one was ever advised that. From our film badge dosimeter (to be worn on the special suit) to the encasing of the source that is shielded in 18 layers, to the regular inspections by BARC, everything was well adhered to,” he said. Sawant, though, said the institute’s legacy ought to be maintained as nuclear chemistry has immense scope.
The decline of several labs at this prestigious institute set in when the state government decided to exclude research while computing a teacher’s workload for salary purposes. For an institution where 75% of activity was research driven and 25% was classroom teaching, this decision was a huge setback. “Research was the lifeblood of this institute. It suffered even though many professors took on the teaching workload and tried spending time with students in labs too,” said an old student.
The institute, like its neighbour Elphinstone College, has seen better days. It was here that the first moon rock samples were analysed. Such was its repute that it was among the very few labs of the world that received the lunar samples in early 1970. Today the laboratory of the nuclear chemistry and radiochemistry departments that received these samples is gathering dust. There is no faculty left.
Former head of chemistry and environmental science departments Narendra Thakkar says, “The institute was for long like a terminally ill patient now. In the last few decades, all lines of nourishment and oxygen were choked because of the lack of a clear policy of the state government.” Recalling the institute’s halcyon days, old-timers say it was one place “where the lights never went off”.
In fact, there was a time when it produced the largest number of research papers in India.

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