Mr. Lazar T. Chittilapilly was just one among many students who graduated in ‘83 with a B.Tech. in Aerospace Engineering, just an ordinary student, or so he claims. After completing his post graduation at IISc Bangalore, he now works as the the Project Manager  in the Air Breathing Propulsion Project. His involvement has helped the project progress by leaps and bounds. An awardee of the Distinguished Alumni Award 2018, he has given an interview to Chennai36 where he talks about his life in insti and his work.

Congratulations on winning the Distinguished Alumnus Award! What are your thoughts at this juncture?

Thank you. I was an ordinary student when I was here. And I couldn’t imagine then that I will be getting this Distinguished Alumnus award. I was very fortunate. And I know there are many more who have done equally good work or better work than me and I wish them good luck in the years to come.

How were your days at IIT Madras? What are your memories? Could you share some of them with us?

Well, in those days it was a 5 year B.Tech program and we started with full-week workshops. That was one of the best experiences we had. We had Saturday NCC parades and OAT and all were lovely experiences. It helped us get moulded into good engineers.

After IIT Madras you went to undertake your masters at IISc Bangalore. So what was that experience like?

When my daughter was young, some would tease her asking her whom she liked most – papa or mama. And she used to look at us and say, “both”. So, yeah, I like both my experiences at IIT and IISc. IIT actually helped me to be focussed on overall development. While at IISc, it was more on the research part of it. I was fortunate to have both and it is a good combination.

Your career has been marked by a commitment to research and innovation in propulsion technology. What fuelled your passion for pursuing this field?

Well, you see, propulsion is about how to produce force, or thrust. And that is most important in Aerospace Engineering. Also, I was always very much interested in Engineering Mechanics. And propulsion is, in a way, multidisciplinary. Like, it has lot of fluid mechanics, heat transfer and combustion. So I liked it.

We learned that you led the team at Air Breathing Propulsion Project at Vikram Sarabhai Space Center, ISRO. What would you say your major contributions were?

Air breathing propulsion is a new area in rocketry. The rocket or the launch vehicle, that takes off, you see, it constitutes mostly of propellant. And in the propellant, most of it is oxidiser – the oxidiser carried to burn the fuel. In fact fuel is a smaller fraction of what goes up. And oxidiser, is about two-third of the total mass that goes off. And most of the propellant, about three-fourth of it, is consumed in the early part of the flight. Upto about, say, 50 kilometers, where air is available. So we are trying see to how air can be used to replace the oxidiser so that the rocket could be very small and cost-effective. But it’s complex technology. So far no country has put to use this technology for rocket propulsion. We are developing that and we have had some success. In the early part of my career I was working on air breathing rockets, and in recent times, my focus has been on scramjet.

One of your most remarkable achievements has been the development of Scramjet which has successfully put India on the map with powers like the US and Russia. Could you tell us a little bit about the potential of this technology?

Well, the scramjet is basically an air breathing propulsion mode (of operation) for very high speed hypersonic flight. When the vehicle flies more than mach number 5 (5 times the speed of sound) that’s when the Scramjet comes to use. Say for example, our aircrafts which use turbofan and turbojet normally they fly close to mach one.  If scramjet propulsion is put to use in an aircraft and if you travel from New Delhi to San Fransisco (which now takes something like 16 hours) Scramjet would be able to do it in 3 hours time. So, scramjet propulsion has got a good application in the future for global travel. Our focus is however on how to make use of this for the launch vehicle.

It was a moment of honor when Scramjet won the ISRO Team Excellence Award in 2016 and this was surely a result of your hard work and leadership. Were there challenges on the way and how did you overcome them?

It was a team effort. I had a big team supporting me and I was just leading it. We had members in the team from various centres of ISRO and we also had a lot of support from the academia and industry. And yeah we had challenges but with team effort we could solve them.

You have been an integral part of IIT Madras through the ISRO-IIT Space Technology Cell Joint Policy Committee in reviewing projects to be taken up. What is your opinion on the current state of research here?

In fact that helped me to be in touch with the academia. At the ISRO-IIT Space Technology Cell many projects are conducted which have contributed in big way to ISRO programmes. And currently the projects are generally independent in nature. I think, in the future, if there are more clustered projects or thematic projects, it will be able to contribute much further.

What are some of the changes you observe in the campus now?

Well, campus has not changed much but for some new buildings. It is as lovely as it was then.

Do you have any advice for the current students and scholars of IIT Madras?

The first thing I would like to say is that there are lot of good opportunities in the country for higher studies, research and development. And industries are also now quite mature. The other thing I would like to request or advice students is that you should look at things in totality. That would make you good designers and ensure that good products come out. It is good to be a specialist, but at the same time don’t lose track of the system as a whole. And that will need lot of multidisciplinary approach.

Author: Arundathi (DD-NA ’22)

This article is part of the series – DAA 2018. To get regular updates on all our articles, follow us on Facebook at /chennai36 and Instagram at chennai36_iitm