He is near the top of the list of inventors in the United States of America, having more than 75 patents to his name. A sought-after speaker at industrial research groups and international meetings, his forte is surface colloid science which has a bearing on the daily life of men, women and children across the [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

‘Everything in life has to do with Chemistry’

Making waves in surface colloid science in the USA, Lankan consultant Dr. Manilal Dahanayake speaks to Kumudini Hettiarachchi on his vision and his ideas on how to tackle the problem of CKDu here

He is near the top of the list of inventors in the United States of America, having more than 75 patents to his name.

A sought-after speaker at industrial research groups and international meetings, his forte is surface colloid science which has a bearing on the daily life of men, women and children across the world.

Be it the shampoo that is used during a shower, the body lotion to ward off dry skin, the lipstick that women would apply while peering into the mirror, the laundry detergent that is scooped into the washing machine, the paint that is used in homes and offices or the medications that are popped into our mouths, it is all about surface colloid chemistry.

Dr. Dahanayake

For this celebrated inventor and author, Dr. Manilal Dahanayake, living in Princeton, New Jersey, this and much more including enhanced recovery of oil and gas are key areas of interest. This interest in chemistry, however, was sparked off in a classroom in Kandy long years ago.

Consultant to the 15-billion dollar Solvay Group of Companies, Dr. Dahanayake whose patents cover many technologies linked to chemistry, says his interest in chemistry started half a world away at St. Sylvester’s College. With his home two doors from the Dalada Maligawa, on Malabar Street in Kandy, it was at college that chemistry was drilled into him although he was “weak” in that subject. There has been no turning back.

The pathway to the top led through a Chemistry Honours Degree at the Peradeniya University; a short stint as a teacher at the same campus; onto the Petroleum Corporation to head the Nylon Project of a joint venture between Japan and Sri Lanka; a scholarship to Italy to gain a Diploma in Chemical Engineering; a Doctorate in Surface Colloid Chemistry from the City University of New York, coming under the influence of world renowned Prof. Milton Rosen; and finally a post-doctoral fellowship at Cornell University. (Incidentally, surface chemistry deals with the processes that take place at interfaces between two or three immiscible phases particularly liquids and gases, solids and gases, liquids and liquids and solids and liquids.)

When asked about the link between the Petroleum Corporation and nylon, he explains that nylon is a by-product of petroleum.
It was after securing his doctorate that Dr. Dahanayake joined the industry and has been with the Solvay Group for 23 years.

“Chemistry is part and parcel of everyday life. Composites of chemicals are found in everything around us,” says Dr. Dahanayake whose patents or innovations are being practised by a majority of oil companies globally including the United States of America. He was in Sri Lanka as an invitee at the launch of the book ‘Odyssey into the Wild’ by his close friend B.A. Mahipala on May 8.

Dr. Dahanayake also serves as a Director and Visiting Lecturer at the Surfactant Research Institute at New York’s City University. With numerous scientific publications to his credit, more than 100 in fact, two of his books have made the ‘Top Ten Bestseller List’ in the American Chemical Society Publications.

The secret of his success, he believes, lies in the fact that he attempts to use his mind to be creative and innovate. Living in America, has enhanced his opportunities in this direction, with the culture there exposing him to high competition and his company appreciating the valuable work done.

With his areas of ongoing research including enhanced recovery of oil and gas, complex fluids, viscoelastic surfactant/polymers and nano-microemulsions, he hastens to explain them in simple terms. As the population grows, he reiterates, energy is becoming important and new technologies need to be created to recover oil and gas. There is also a need to have ‘green’ products which are not toxic to humans. “Most chemicals are synthetically made. We need to make them milder as well as 100% biodegradable.”

Dr. Dahanayake who is known around the globe as an expert in theory and practice of surface/colloid chemistry has a simple vision — to bring out new technologies in chemistry to improve the standard of living of the people.

Lanka should turn to US for oil exploration

In oil exploration in Sri Lanka, why does this country not seek the expertise of the best in the world which is the US, is what puzzles Dr. Dahanayake.

“This technology is advanced in the US and it would be advisable to solicit expertise from it,” he says, adding that the countries that Sri Lanka is engaging in this exercise in turn seek US expertise. So why not get it directly from the US?

A pet theme of Dr. Dahanayake is agrochemicals and he underscores the need for Sri Lanka to understand what causes Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown aetiology (CKDu) which is felling the farmers of the North Central Province.

Pointing out that this mystery illness is affecting only Third World and some Latin American countries, he urges local researchers to carry out a comprehensive literature review which would show up the harm being done by glyphosate, the key ingredient in the herbicide Roundup manufactured by Monsanto, an agrochemical giant.

Monsanto itself has brought in limits on the usage of Roundup because of its high toxicity, he says, stressing that many countries have banned glyphosate-based products.

Questioning why no CKDu patients are surfacing in developed countries including the US, he is quick to point out that when glyphosate, a highly toxic substance, is sprayed it gets into the soil and links up with heavy metals such as calcium, magnesium and arsenic, becoming insoluble over time. These compounds are not biodegradable. Eventually they contaminate the ground water and there is slow dissolution. In America and other developed countries, the water that they drink is treated but in the villages in Sri Lanka, the people drink the groundwater from their wells.

“Provide safe drinking water to people living in the CKDu-affected areas,” he urges, suggesting that the authorities should get the agrochemical suppliers to fund this project.

Meanwhile, the use of glyphosate should be controlled and the farmers educated on this, while simultaneously researchers should carry out in-depth studies on the effects of drinking water which has heavy-metal complexes of glyphosate.

“This is not rocket science,” Dr. Dahanayake says, adding that there is no point in researchers claiming that they have doctorates from this university or that. What is important is their contribution in terms of publications and patents for the upliftment of standards in their community.

With regard to CKDu, the researchers need to pick out the pieces and complete the jigsaw puzzle. This would prove that true research which benefits the community is being carried out in Sri Lanka. There should be collective effort in solving it, and if needed outside support should be solicited, he adds.


Revolutionising industries

Here are a few of the many patents of Dr. Dahanayake that reflect the versatility of the industrial and personal care applications that have made a major impact and revolutionised the respective industries. The total value created by all his innovations, most of which are in commercial use, amounts to over billions of dollars as well as making significant contributions to “sustainable” development .

*Method of Recovering Oil from an Oil Reservoir (Patent US 7789144 & 7784540) — In the recovery of oil from the ground only 10% can be recovered through traditional and conventional methods. The new technology in this patent, the use of viscoelastic surfactants, now practised by major oil companies allows the recovery of more than 50% of oil from an oil reservoir.

*Purification of surfactants with ultra-filtration to recover and re-use (Patent US 6004466 A) — Within sustainable development, the use and recovery of water is very important especially with scarcities in view of a growing population. Use of ultra-filtration techniques with green surfactants allows the recovery of almost 100% of fresh water, thereby sustaining water resources as well as significantly reducing the disposal of waste/contaminated water to the environment. This technology is now used in major industries globally, saving considerable cost in water management and reducing environmental pollution.

*Emulsifiable concentrate comprising a pesticide, a surfactant, a hydrophobic solvent and a hydrophilic solvent (Patent US 5156666 A) — This invention has reduced the use concentration of pesticides that are highly toxic by the use of mild surfactants that enhance the efficacy of the pesticide at very low concentrations. This allows the use of a low dosage of pesticides, than otherwise required, as these are harmful to the environment and humans. It also significantly reduces the cost to the farmers.

*Process for making ‘green’ surfactants from renewable resources (Patent US 20120215031-A1) — These surfactants will replace most of the traditional synthetically-made surfactants that are from non-renewable resources and are also highly irritating to the skin and eyes. These mild surfactants which are totally biodegradable and considered green surfactants, are now replacing most of the surfactants used in personal care applications including shampoos, body lotions and soaps and laundry detergents etc.

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