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PRAKASH, the Metallurgist who put maraging steel instead of 15CDV6 for Indian Space launch (US)

05-12-2012

Category : Metallurgistes

PROFESSOR BRAHM PRAKASH – the first Indian Head of the Department of Metallurgy, I.I.Sc., Bangalore ( Credit Photo @ abdulkalam.com)

When a memorial seminar had been organised by the Indian Institute of Metals in Hyderabad, in honour of Professor Brahm Prakash on August 21, 1984 (-it was the 72nd anniversary of his birth, and he had passed away on January 3, 1984), I had written: “To do any justice to the phenomenal content of the life and work of this great Metallurgist and Administrator, and to his total personality as an individual of rare quality, will require a considerable amount of patient research-gathering and collating information and impressions from all availabe sources, in order to present a complete account for the benefit of posterity.” To some extent this was attempted when a Biographical Memoir on Brahm Prakash was written, at the instance of the Indian National Science Academy, which was published in 1993. But more remains to be done. The present article is being written in the context of the Golden Jubilee of Department of Metallurgy, Indian Institute of Science (IISc.), Bangalore- where Brahm Prakash had served, as the first Indian Head of the Department, during the period from January 1951 till March 1957. The circumstance under which Brahm Prakash came to Bangalore was somewhat fortuituous. Born in Lahore (now in Pakistan), Brahm Prakash had his college education in chemistry, and pursued his doctoral research in the Punjab University. For his post-doctoral work, he was for a while associated with Dr. Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, and then, on the basis of his brilliant scholastic recod, he was selected for advanced academic training in the United States, in 1946 soon after the end of World War II. He had joined the Department of Metallurgy, at the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), at a stage when basic research in Metallurgy had started to blossom, and the subject of Metallurgy was getting transformed from a tradition of practical skills to a science-based technology. The stay at MIT (1946-49) gave Brahm Prakash the opportunity to have a close look at the Graduate School system, which had provided an excellent environment / and training ground for all original research in the U.S. He came under the influence of luminaries like John Chipman, Morris Cohen, A.M. Gaudin, and Reinhardt Schumann (Jr.), with whom he did his second Ph.D. programme, qualifying for his Sc.D.(MIT), specialising in the disciplines of Mineral Engineering and Metallurgical Thermodynamics. When Brahm Prakash returned to India in 1949, Dr. Bhatnagar recommended him to Dr. Homi Bhabha, for a position in the then nascent Atomic Energy programme, in Bombay. Towards the end of 1950-when the Indian Institute of Science was searching for a suitable person to head the Department of Metallurgy, and the setting up of AEC’s Metallurgy laboratories was in the very early stage-it was proposed by Dr. Bhabha (who was also a Member of the Court of the IISc.), that Brahm Prakash will take up the Headship of the Department of Metallurgy in Bangalore on the specific understanding that he will return to Bombay, as soon as the programme of work picked up its momentum there. At the time Brahm Prakash joined at Bangalore, I was in the second year of the 3-year ‘Diploma’ course in Metallurgy. Earlier I had studied chemistry-for the B.Sc, (Hons.) degree -at the Presidency College in Madras, where I remember that the laboratory facilities for practical work were superb. If my chemistry teacher, Professor M.E. Doraiswamy was the one who decisively inspired me to continue with chemistry at the Honours level, perhaps it was the example of Professor T.R. Anantharaman that influenced me to proceed to the Institute in Bangalore, to do Metallurgy. In 1949, when I had joined the Department in Bangalore, Mr. E.V. Ganapathi Iyer was the acting Head, and Dr. E.G. Ramachandran and Messrs. J. Balachandra, Patankar, N.R. Srinivasan, and S.S. Ghosh were some of the other members in the Faculty. Between them they handled the lectures for us in Physical Metallurgy, Non-ferrous Extraction, Iron and Steel technology, Mineralogy, Fuels and Furnace technology. As standard text books were few in those days (I remember Barrett, Liddell, Paschkis), we depended more on class notes. I remember that I particularly enjoyed the lectures on Physical Metallurgy, as it was a subject new to me, and Dr. Ramachandran was an exemplary teacher. I also remember the painstaking efforts of Mr. Balachandra in providing detailed information on Metals Technology. The Department at that stage was still in the early days of its growth, and the laboratory facilities were limited. The course requirements included practical training at the end of the first and the second year, (in the first year I had gone to the Bhadravathi Iron and Steel works, and in the second year to TISCO at Jamshedpur). This was the situation when Dr. Brahm Prakash stepped in and took charge of the Department in January 1951, and very soon he was in firm command. With his earlier grounding in physical chemistry and University research experience in India, and the subsequent exposure to the graduate school system in a front-line institution in the USA, Dr. Prakash had clear ideas in formulating a comprehensive course curriculum in Metallurgy. Very soon the semester was introduced. He himself handled the lectures in Metallurgical Thermodynamics, Principles of Extractive Metallurgy and Iron and Steel Making and also Refractories. He induced and encouraged his colleagues to present courses in new areas. I particularly remember the lectures on ternary phase diagrams by Dr. Ramachandran, who constructed three dimensional models for this course. There were additions to the Faculty, including Drs. Deshpande (Mechanical Metallurgy), D.L. Bhattacharya (Electron Microscopy), and K.V. Aiyer (Non-ferrous and Powder Metallurgy). Dr. T.R. Anantharaman (an alumnus from the first batch), who had proceeded to Oxford University, on a Rhodes scholarship to work with Prof. W. Hume Rothery for his Doctorate, returned at a later stage, as Assistant Professor, with a few years of post-doctoral experience in Germany. During the six year period of Brahm Prakash’s leadership, there was a steady expansion in the volume and variety of research programmes in the Department. There were externally sponsored and funded research programmes e.g. Aluminium Coating of Steel (CSIR project), Separation of Zirconium and Hafnium, Metallurgy of Nuclear grade Zirconium (Department of Atomic Energy). The last year of the 3 year Metallurgy course was supposed to be devoted to a research project on a chosen theme. When it came to my return, I had the choice of working either on Electro-deposition of Metals and Alloys from fluo-borate baths, or on ‘Recovery of copper from smelter slags’. I chose the latter programme, in view of its relevance to the copper industry. This brought me under the direct influence and guidance of Brahm Prakash, and later on paved the way for my entry to the Department of Atomic Energy. In the early 1950′s, the indications were that zirconium metal will assume importance as a structural and fuel-cladding material in water-cooled nuclear power reactors. Taking into account India’s stake in nuclear power development, and the zircon resources in the Indian beach sands, a project was referred to Dr. Brahm Prakash in Bangalore to develop a process for producing hafnium-free zirconium for nuclear applications. On completion of my course in Metallurgy (in 1952) I was selected to work on this project, where work had commenced a year earlier. In the Bangalore phase of the zirconium programme, many aspects of zirconium chemistry and metallurgy were investigaged, namely, 1) chemical treatment of zircon to produce intermediates like sodium zirconate, zirconium sulfate, potassium zirconium fluoride, zirconium oxy-chloride etc. 2) arc-furnace treatment of zircon to produce zirconium carbide 3) chlorination of zirconium carbide 4) purification of zirconium chloride 5) vapour-phase de-chlorination of Zr(Hf)Cl4, to produce low-hafnium zirconium oxide, 6) selective reduction of Zr(Hf)Cl4, with aluminium for removal of hafnium, and 7) fused salt electrolysis of K2ZrF6 using a molten electrolyte bath. Results on vapour phase dechlorination were presented by Dr. Brahm Prakash at the First U.N. Conference on the peaceful uses of Atomic Energy, in Geneva (1955) and the paper was acclaimed for its originality. The results on selective reduction of zirconium chloride were presented in the next Geneva Conference held in 1958. The achievements in the zirconium programme in Bangalore truly laid the foundation for the larger programme subsequently undertaken in Bombay, which eventually led to the setting up of the Nuclear Fuel Complex in Hyderabad, in 1971, for the large scale production of zirconium sponge, zirconium mill products, and zircaloy clad ceramic uranium oxide fuel elements. Side by side his academic responsibilities in Bangalore, Brahm Prakash kept up a continuous link with the Atomic Energy programme, attending discussion meetings in Bombay and also undertaking tours abroad during the summer vacations. In 1955, he was selected as one of the scientific secretaries for the first United Nations conference on the peaceful uses of Atomic Energy (that was held in 1955). It was a prestigious assignment. For the preparatory work relating to the Conference, he was stationed in New York for a few months, and then he also participated in the Conference where he presented our paper. By early 1957, Dr. Bhabha decided that it was time to recall Dr. Brahm Prakash to Bombay, and Dr. Prakash, faithful to his commitment, relinquished his charge of office in Bangalore on March 31, 1957. Professor S. Ranganathan of the Department of Metallurgy (who is now Chairman, Mechanical Sciences Division, IISc) had analysed the many-sided contributions of Professor Brahm Prakash to the Department of Metallurgy, and his services to the cause of metallurgical education and research-in a paper presented at the Hyderabad seminar in 1984. In the short compass of this article, it will not be attempted to cover in detail or in their entirety the large and diverse contributions made by Dr. Brahm Praksh, to the Atomic Energy Programme (1957-72), the Space Programme (1972-84), and also to Defence Production, when he was Chairman, MIDHANI. All this has been presented in detail in the INSA Memoir (1993). Dr. Brahm Prakash was the first project Director for the Nuclear Fuel Complex (NFC) that was set up in Hyderabad in 1971. As a collaborative effort between the Chemical Engineering, Metallurgy, Atomic Fuels and Chemistry Divisions, in Trombay, it has been a successful experiment in translating R & D experience to a large scale production activity. Today, the NFC not only is responsible for supplying all the nuclear fuel elements and zirconium alloy components for the Nuclear power programme but also has established capabilities for supplying seamless stainless steel and other alloy tubings and a variety of electronic grade high-purity materials. NFC recently completed 25 years of continuous operation, and on that occasion, a bust of Dr. Brahm Prakash was unveiled, in front of the New Fuel Fabrication plant at the Complex, remembering him as the prime Architect of the Complex. At the time Dr. Brahm Prakash joined as Director of the Space Centre (VSSC) in Trivandrum, in May 1972, the space programme envisioned by Dr. Vikram Sarabhai was still in its early stages of growth, and the idfferent units of the programme were somewhat loosely knit. It stands to the credit of Prof. S. Dhawan, as Chairman, ISRO and Dr. Brahm Prakash, as Director, VSSC, that between the two they provided a coherent and harmonious leadership for many years, which saw the fruitioning of many satellite and launch vehicle programmes. Today the Indian Space research programme is recognised as one of the most successful programmes in the world. The many tributes that were paid to Brahm Prakash-on his passing away on January 3, 1984-by his colleagues and associates from various organisations and institutions all over the country, all emphasised not only his scientific acument and his superb administrative and organisational abilities but even more his unique human qualities, of a consistently unruffled temperatment of total composure, his kindliness and compassion, impeccable integrity commitment and dedication, his infinite capacity for hard work without expectation of rewards, and his rare personal charm, grace and dignity. If the Bhagavat Gita has given a detailed portrait of a “sthithprajna“, and individual of steadfast mind, with clarity in action, who remains unperturbed under any circumstance, Brahm Prakash was the real-life model. In greatful memory of Professor Brahm Prakash, the Bangalore Chapter of the Indian Institute of Metals has instituted a Memorial Lecture, commencing from 1985, that regularly held every year on August 21, in the campus of the IISc. The Trivandrum chapter of IIM has also taken a similar initiative. The Indian Institute of Metals organizes every year a national quiz in materials in the memory of Professor Brahm Prakash. The Departments of Atomic Energy, Space and Science and Technology, and the Defence Research and Development Organisation have together contributed to a corpus, to support a Brahm Prakash Chair, for a Visiting Professorship in the Department of Metallurgy/Materials Science, IISc. To mark the Golden Jubilee of the Metallurgy Department, a laboratory extension has been proposed, that will bear his name. The ISRO has also instituted a distinguished Professorship in the name of Brahm Prakash. The Indian National Science Academy has instituted a Prize in the name of Prof. Prakash. (The Prakash family had developed a strong liking for Bangalore, and built many strong personal associations, here, during their stay in the Institute Campus. In fact, Mrs. Brahm Prakash had entertained the fond hope that one day they will settle down in Bangalore, though this has not happened. Their three children are all now settled in the U.S. (i) The elder daughter Suman, is married to Dr. Moti Kashyap, engaged in mdeical research. They live near Los Angeles, California, along with their daughter and two sons (ii) Son Arun, with a doctorate in Computer Science, is a Research Supervisor, in the Engineering Physics Laboratory of M/s Du Pont, at Wilmington, Delaware. He is married to Nita, and they have three daughters. Dr. Arun Prakash had made a trip to Bangalore a few years back to explore the possibility of finding a suitable placement at IISc, but his extensive and advanced Industrial Research experience (with Du Pont) did not quite match with the criteria ladi down by the Committee of Professors, for academic positions! (iii) The youngest Manya, has a doctorate in physics, from the University of Northwestern. She is married to a theoretical physicist Dr. Giovanni Vignale. The have two daughters and a son, and live in Columbia, Missouri. Manya is working as a Medical Physicist, in a hospital).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  1. Dr. Brahm Prakash (1912-84), Eulogy-a bouquet of tributes from the Indian Space Research Organisation, Bangalore, January 1984.
  2. Dr. Braham Prakash Memorial Issue of Count Down (the House Journal of Vikram Sarabai Space Centre community), No. 45, January 1984.
  3. Proceedings of the Professor Brahm Prakash Memorial Seminar, Hyderabad, August 21-22, 1984, published in the Transactions of the Indian Institute of Metals, special number, Vol 39, June 1986.
  4. Homage to a Doyen-Dr. Brahm Prakash, A commemorative Tribute, Brochure released at the time of the Hyderabad Seminar, August 1984.
  5. Professor Brahm Prakash’s contribution to Metallurgical Education, by S. Ranganathan, p 49-52 in ref 3. above.
  6. First Brahm Prakash Memorial lecture, ‘Application- related Metallurgy of Zirconium, Niobium and Beryllium’ by C.V. Sundaram, IIM Bangalore Chapter, August 21, 1995.
  7. ‘The Legacy of Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai and Brahm Prakash’, Prof. Brahm Prakash Memorial Lecture by C.V. Sundaram, Trivandrum Chapter of IIM, May 23, 1997.
  8. Memorial of Prof. Brahm Prakash, Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi, 1993.

Source :  I n d i a n    I n s t i t u t e   o f   S c i e n c e,    B a n g a l o r e,   I N D I A

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