Sunil Budke

Proprietor, Evelon Biotech

I Sell Bacteria

Sunil Budke

Water is a valuable resource for any country, but in a developing nation like India with very high population density, recycling water is the need of the hour. Today, the total water consumption in India has reached around 800 billion cubic metres. This demand will double in next two decades. Our existing infrastructure for water treatment is in no way sufficient to meet that. Unless we take some drastic steps, we are in for big trouble.I have taken one such step; I sell bacteria to save water! “What! You sell bacteria! Why? Bacteria are bad. They must be killed. Who buys bacteria?”

That is the first response I usually get when I tell someone that I am running a company that manufactures and sells bacteria. I don’t blame them. It is just a natural reaction rooted in the notion of evil bacteria perpetuated by the media. Every day we see advertisements on TV and newspapers that talk about antiseptics, disinfectants, soaps, detergents, cosmetics, toothpastes and everything else that kills bacteria! The yardstick for a product’s quality is the effectiveness with which it kills bacteria. Backed witha very potent budget, these advertisements successfully place all the bacteria in our mind’s shelf-of-disgust where they find company in filth, mosquitoes, cockroaches, and assorted diseases; thereby sealing any possibility of us ever seeing bacteria in a positive light.Let me try and paint another picture of the bacteria. Sustenance of life on earth depends on bacteria and other microorganisms. Without bacteria, there will not be decomposition of waste, no fertility in soil, no food to eat, no decomposition of dead bodies which will fill every inch of mother earth, and no oxygen to breathe! Yes, a large portion of oxygen that we breathe comes from microorganisms! In fact, our bodies are covered with bacteria from inside out, all the time, no matter which soap you use! They are present all around us — in soil, water, air, dust particles, deep in oceans and high up in atmosphere. There are more than million types of microbes in nature and yet more are being discovered. A very small fraction of these bacteria can cause diseases; less than five per cent according to some estimates. Most of the bacteria in fact, play a critical role in sustaining life on earth and are essential for our good health.

Can Bacteria Degrade Waste?

Bacteria obtain nutrition by letting chemicals from outside pass through the small pores in the bacterial cell wall. Bacteria break down the chemical (digest it), obtain energy from it and grow. We are exploiting the Metabolism of bacteria in waste water treatment. We manufacture and supply colonies of specific bacteria for wastewater treatment. With years of research, we have identified certain bacteria in the nature, which are good at absorbing harmful chemicals or pollutants in water and degrading them (digest them).

Our Micro-Friends

Microbes have been used commercially for centuries. We all know that curd, wine, cheese and bread are products of microbial action. But very few know that today, most of the therapeutic drugs and vitamins are made using microorganisms like bacteria and fungus. Even our gut has bacteria that produce vitamin B, which is absorbed by our body. Health promoting bacteria, which live on our body, fight the infection causing bacteria and protect us from infectious microorganisms. One of the primary function of mother’s milk is to promote beneficial bacteria (like Lactobacillus) to grow in the infants gut. Commercial substitutes for mother’s milk have these bacteria added to the powder.

Battling the Defunct

The field of Waste water treatment is largely driven by engineering and chemical products. Large volumes of chemicals are used for precipitation, flocculation, and settling pollutants in water. Grids and filters are used to separate insoluble material from water. Unfortunately most toxic chemicals remain dissolved in water and cannot be separated by filtration.Some companies have also invested in reverse osmosis (RO) filters that remove some dissolved toxicants. However, RO systems are capital intensive and have high costs associated with operation and maintenance. Moreover, an RO system requires preprocessed water. This means that even the RO systems can accept water for treatment only after the pollutant load is reduced to a certain acceptable level. Looking at the large volume of waste water generated in mid and large sized factories, deployment of RO systems seems to be impractical. Yet, many organisations are comfortable with investing in equipment and implementing engineering solutions than trying out research based bacteria. The challenge is to break the inertia and encourage decision makers to try a new technology.

Generic v/s Specific Bacteria

Most of the equations and formulae for building Waste Water Treatment Plants (WWTPs), which use bacteria, are based on some generalised assumptions about the effluent. Although it is a well established fact that the right bacteria can speed up waste treatment process, rarely do WWTP operators focus on buying and using specific bacteria that are good at degrading particular pollutants they are trying to get rid of.Most WWTPs use cow-dung as a source of bacteria. I concede that cow-dung has lots of bacteria, but so does soil. This does not work because the bacteria in the dung come from the gut of a cow, where their job is to decompose foliage eaten by the animal. How can we possibly hope for these bacteria to be good at degrading industrial waste? It is like saying that since animals eat grass, buy some hyenas if you want to get your lawn mowed! Some animals do eat grass but not all animals. Some bacteria do degrade a chemical effluent while others do not.The practice of using cowdung comes from an era where specialised bacteria were not available for industrial waste degradation. At that time, biogas plants (where agricultural waste is converted to methane using cow dung) served as exemplary models of waste treatment. Today’s engineers are failing to move on from that time and are trying to run the WWTP like a biogas system! We have been putting in a lot of effort to help our fellow engineers and plant operators see the rationale behind our product. It is a challenge for us and for them, to go against conventional logic.Conversely, we know that effluent from one factory will not be same as that from the other factory. In fact the effluent composition and volume will vary day to day and even hour to hour. So these generalisations at their very best can only yield generic, mediocre results. The success and operation of a plant is more of an art than science. We have come across plants that are designed and run exactly as per the theoretical values, but the results are not as expected. One of the prime reasons is that conventional theory is based on highly generalised assumptions about bacterial metabolism (manner in which they degrade chemicals). These assumptions do not hold ground in real life situations. The plants do not work simply because they are not using the right kind of bacteria.Even if some plants achieve limited success by using such generic bacteria, the operational costs of these plants is usually high. Generic bacteria will have to be grown in large numbers, they will require more oxygen, and hence, more expenses are incurred on running compressors. Most of the plants do try to adapt generic bacteria to degrade chemicals but the degradation efficiency may not be satisfactory.

Adapting v/s Evolving

Let me explain this with a simplified analogy. Imagine that there is a race in town where people are invited to bring in their pets to race against those of others. Many people come with their pet dogs; some bring strays, while others get hounds that are well trained to race. When racing with the strays, of course the hounds will win; but what if I bring in a cheetah to that race! You can bet all your life’s savings on that untrained cheetah easily winning the race. The cheetah has evolved to be a fast runner. Evolution beats adaptation.Generic bacteria, even if adapted to a particular effluent will not be able to treat water as effectively as an evolved bacteria, and that is what the race analogy was about. No matter how beautifully a plant is designed or how well it is operated, biological decomposition will not happen if you don’t have the right bacteria.

My Journey

I have founded Evolon Biotech — an organization that specialises in identifying useful bacteria in nature and applying these isolated bacteria in waste water treatment. Before starting this business, I had the opportunity to work with a couple of biotechnology companies that were engaged in production of enzymes using bacteria. Once we are done extracting enzymes from the bacteria, they should ideally be discarded. However, the biotech companies saw a big market for such bacteria in waste water treatment industry. Remember, for many decision makers in the industry, all bacteria are the same. So, bacteria from an enzyme making company are even better than ones obtained from cow- dung. It saves them truck-loads of smelly cow-dung brought to the plant. At that time I wondered how effective these bacteria grown for enzyme production can be for treating waste. The more I studied about microbial degradation, the more I became aware of the need for specificity.So, I left the biotech company to begin my own research to hunt and isolate pollutant degrading bacteria in nature. After a year of research, I was finally able to develop a 200g sample of bacteria for oil and grease degradation. I approached a consulting firm which was working on a difficult challenge assigned to them by ONGC. I presented the bacterial sample to the consulting firm and requested them to conduct a small scale trial to check the efficacy of bacteria. Very soon they got encouraging results and we won our first order of 300 Kg.It was a big order and Evolon had taken a big risk with it. The consulting company was also understandably concerned about trying out new technology from a fledgling company for an important client like an ONGC. We compounded our risk by signing a contract stating that Evolon Biotech would refund all the payments if ONGC was not completely satisfied with the results. It was a huge chance that we had taken and if we failed, it would have got us out of the business. As the chariot of time had to unveil, our formula worked phenomenally well. It even exceeded my own expectations. The oil and grease content in water was above 1000 PPM. The success criteria set by the client was to reduce oil levels down to 100 PPM. We had internally expected to bring the level to below 50 PPM. The consulting company, with us, was able to reduce oil content from 1000 PPM to flat 0 PPM. The news spread fast and more orders from other companies started coming in.

Way Forward

Today, after three years of its inception, Evolon Biotech is supplying more than 15 tonnes (15,000 Kg) of bacteria for various waste treatment applications every month. This is a very modest figure and we intend to grow it to at least 100 tonne per month by the end of FY17. Apart from regular orders from industrial waste water treatment plants, we have also successfully developed and are supplying bacteria to solid waste treatment plants. The company has already enticed government bodies in conducting trials at pilot scale levels. The results have been highly encouraging and we are now in the process of negotiating full-scale orders. Our product has crossed state boundaries and we have delivered the product to several northern and eastern regions of India. In coming year, we will be looking at a Southern India expansion. We have also initiated preliminary procedures to export live biological products to foreign countries. We intend to invest heavily in R&D and expand its library of bacterial cultures.

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