Turning waste into energy in India

Drive through northern India in winter and you’ll find a landscape shrouded in smoke. The haze, which at times is so thick it can be seen from space, is the by-product of the widespread burning of crop leftovers across India’s sprawling farm belt.

But the smoke is more than an eyesore – it’s also hazardous. During the burning season, the air pollution in Delhi, India’s capital, is 14 times the safe limit.

That is something Vidyut Mohan is hoping to change.

The 29-year-old Indian engineer, who grew up in Delhi, is the co-founder of Takachar. The company buys rice husks, straw and coconut shells from farmers and turns them into charcoal, saving the debris from the fires, which are also a driver of climate change.

“I’ve always been passionate about energy access and creating income opportunities for poor communities,” said Mohan. “(That) is at the heart of finding answers to the difficult question of balancing economic growth and climate change mitigation in developing countries.”

Since Takachar was launched in 2018, Mohan and co-founder Kevin Kung have worked with about 4,500 farmers and processed 3,000 tonnes of crops. Those efforts were recently recognized by the United Nations Environment Programme, which named Mohan a 2020 Young Champion of the Earth. The award provides seed funding and mentorship to promising environmentalists tackling the world’s most pressing challenges.

“The open burning of agricultural residues is a big source of air pollution in many parts of the world,” says Mark Radka, chief of the energy and climate branch at UNEP’s Economy Division. “The practice also contributes to climate change by releasing tiny particles of black carbon into the atmosphere. Takachar’s innovative technology can help farmers turn what is currently thought of as waste into a valuable resource while helping clean up our environment.”


Vidyut Mohan is a 2020 Young Champion of the earth winner
Vidyut Mohan co-founded Takachar, which builds affordable and portable biomass upgrading equipment. Photo: UNEP


An agricultural revolution

In the 1960s, the Green Revolution brought bio-engineered seeds, chemical fertilizers and modern irrigation techniques to India, helping to dramatically boost crop yields and reduce hunger. But along with that came enormous amounts of waste that farmers had no way of ridding themselves of other than by burning.

Studies have shown the now ubiquitous crop fires flood northern India with tiny, invisible airborne particles. These clumps of pollution, which often contain soot and lead, can worsen a host of ailments, from asthma to heart disease.

Working with farmer associations, Takachar has piloted a portable machine that roasts agricultural waste at high temperatures and converts it into charcoal, fertilizer and activated carbon, which is popular in filtration systems.

“It runs on the heat it produces. It needs no other source of energy,” says Mohan, who started dabbling in the technology during his master’s studies at the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands.

The machine can consume around 200kg of product per hour and be operated up to 20 hours a day. Mohan says it is low cost – about a third the price of traditional crop conversion equipment – and is designed to be employed in remote areas.

From fields to fridges

The activated carbon Takachar generates is sold to companies, like Brita, for use in water filtration products. According to Mohan, there’s a huge market for more sustainable activated carbon as, globally, 60 per cent of the substance is made from wood and coal.

“We’d like to scale the amount of activated carbon that can be produced from biomass, starting with making the coconut shell value-chain less polluting than what it is right now and bringing the value more towards farmers,” Mohan said.

Takachar is working with a partner in Kenya on scaling fertilizer production and Mohan has big plans for the future. By 2030, he hopes to be working with 1 million farmers and he thinks Takachar technology could help prevent the release of 700 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

“Slowly and gradually all funding streams available and support services are turning towards sustainability,” said Mohan. “Companies are going to lose if they don’t become sustainable in the long run.”


The United Nations Environment Programme’s Champions of the Earth and the Young Champions of the Earth honour individuals, groups and organizations whose actions have had a transformative impact on the environment.

The Young Champions of the Earth prize is the United Nations Environment Programme’s leading initiative to engage youth in tackling the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. Vidyut Mohan is one of seven winners announced in December 2020, on the cusp of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030.

By showcasing news of the significant work being done on the environmental frontlines these awards aim to inspire and motivate more people to act for nature. Both awards are part of UNEP’s #ForNature campaign to rally momentum for the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) in Kunming in May 2021, and catalyze climate action all the way to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2021.