Mirza Mohammad Taqui Khan

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A brief biography

Partha Maitra, July 30, 2023: The Times of India

Hyderabad has its own Humphry Davy. A scientist with a chemical gene, Mirza Mohammad Taqui Khan, catalysed the extraction of iodine from marine algae at CSIR’s Bhavnagar lab in the eighties, spurring the commercial production of iodised salt, which helped eradicate the scourge of iodine deficiency in India — the single biggest cause of mental retardation and goitre.

A trace halogen, iodine – Davy, the prolific nineteenth century British chemist and inventor, is credited with discovering its elemental nature – propels the thyroid hormone in humans. It would go on to be made a key ingredient of edible salt by then PM Indira Gandhi under the universal iodisation programme. And Bhavnagarbased Central Salt and Marine Chemical Research Institute (CSMCRI), led by Prof Taqui Khan, played a stellar role in technology transfer and quality control in the run-up to the Centre’s historic move in 1983 to engage private players in the commercial production of iodised salt.

The 93-year-old professor, who was head of department of chemistry, Osmania University, and former principal of Nizam College, Hyderabad, says, “Brown algae is a potent iodine accumulator and a traditional ashing method was adopted for extraction. The dried algae was burnt and the charred residue soaked in water and iodine decocted under high pressure. ” This, at a time when even common salt and potassium iodate, the ionic chemical for iodisation, were imported by India.

Khan, who was CSMCRI director from 1982 to 1991, holds a doctorate degree in inorganic chemistry from Clark University, Massachusetts. He was a special invitee to Imperial College, London, on the invitation of Nobel laureate Prof Geoffrey Wilkinson and a visiting professor at Texas A&M University. Talking to TOI from London, Rafiq Hussain Siddiqui, honorary professor at the University of Liverpool, said, “I was then associated with the catalysis team at CSMCRI and was working on the extraction of uranium from algae. But we scrapped the project due to its radioactive perils and began focusing on iodine. It was a huge success under Prof Khan. ”

Khan’s a living legend among the Naga and Mizo tribes, whom he trained to manufacture iodised salt at a time when goitre was endemic in an isolated North-East. “Humne aapka namak khaya hai (we are indebted to you), the Nagas would tell me. They embraced me as their own and even requested me to marry a girl of their tribe as a gesture of gratitude,” says Khan, who still retains a razor-sharp memory. He would nonetheless marry his contemporary and colleague, the late Prof Badarunissa, with whom he shared a special chemistry.

Providing clean drinking water was a tall order in the parched deserts of Rajasthan and the brackish wastelands of Kachchh and Saurashtra in Gujarat. But it was Khan who developed the cutting-edge reverse osmosis technology at CSMCRI for the desalination of salt water. He holds a patent on the ‘creation of high-flux membrane for desalination’ — a giant ‘Make-in-India’ leap way back in the eighties, when US firms held sway over this technology. In 1985, the indigenous technology was made available to the public at low cost and helped provide potable water and curb debilitating diseases.

“The project became so popular that the technology was exported to Southeast Asian nations like Thailand and Vietnam when Rajiv Gandhi was PM. More RO plants were set up across India and the Dwarka Shankaracharya specially honoured me for setting up a reverse osmosis plant at the shrine,” recalls Khan, who now lives at his ancestral house in a bylane of Old Hyderabad’s Yakutpura. This was also the house where he built a lab in his early years to conduct experiments. He was a student then at the Mufeed Ul Anam High School near Charminar.

Khan served as advisor to the University Grants Commission and is a life member of the Indian National Science Academy, a fellow of Indian Academy of Sciences, and of the Royal Society of Chemistry, London.

When persistent drought and a depleting water table rattled the fragile ecosystem of the sprawling saline desert of the Rann of Kutch and the rolling sand hills of the Thar desert in Rajasthan, Khan stirred up a mini Green Revolution. His stout belief that desertification can be reversed took him to the Sonoran desert in northwest Mexico, where he sourced ‘jojoba’ seeds for replantation in India as part of the Centre’s wasteland development programme in 1985.

This was a watershed moment in India’s struggle to combat advancing deserts, limited till then to solutions involving mostly the cactus and khejri shrub. Called the gold of desert, ‘jojoba’ is a seed-oil crop with an ability to withstand extreme heat and arid, saline conditions. It can survive for up to 100 years.

“The jojoba experiment, which began on over 20 acres of land under the aegis of CSMCRI, has now spread to hundreds of square kilometres straddling the Thar, Rann of Kutch and Saurashtra, reclaiming desert and propping up the economy with liquid-wax from its oil that is widely used in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and petrochemicals,” said Khan, who also holds the patent on hydrogenation of oils (jojoba and castor) and unsaturated compounds.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Khan was born in 1930, the year of the Salt Satyagraha, and met Mahatma Gandhi 14 years later. That meeting was the turning point in his life, says this scientist whose destiny was forged in the salt crucible of Bhavnagar in Gujarat.

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