In 1977, a team of scientists was sent to Bangladesh by the Commonwealth to check for mines in the Bay of Bengal. A young Bangladeshi scientist named Dr Abdul Khaleque accompanied the group as a representative of the Bangladesh government.
Khaleque spent about three months at sea with the researchers. While working with the team and observing the sea basin, he was struck by some ideas. The team of scientists encouraged him to move forward with these ideas. Some years down the line, those ideas would result in patents like "seawater culture," "deepening of riverbed," and "elevation of shallow water."
Dr Khaleque has fifteen patented inventions. His patents come from his work in the fields of classical mechanics and biology. So how did it all begin?
"When I got myself admitted to Dhaka University, I got my first taste of research. I have been researching ever since," said Dr Khaleque.
After completing his studies in biochemistry at Dhaka University, he left the country for higher studies in 1969.
He was a student at Dhaka University during the last years of East Pakistan and was involved in the six points movement. During the War of Liberation he was stuck in England, but did not sit idle. He gathered funds for the war effort and sent the money to the Provisional Government of Bangladesh in Kolkata.
He obtained his PhD from London University in 1974 on 'immuno-enzymology.'
"I researched an enzyme called galactosidase, which mobilises blood and helps release blood energy in the genital system," the veteran scientist explained. He then started teaching at Royal Holloway College in the UK.
He finally returned to the country for good in 1984. Upon his return, he was offered a job at Dhaka University, but seeing the state of teacher politics he decided against it. Then, he decided he would start doing independent research.
For his research, he chose Rangpur.
"I chose Rangpur because the farmers there were really receptive to new technologies. There were challenges as well for agricultural research. You need three types of plots: a control one, an experimental one, and a normal one, but I couldn't manage such plots from one person as the farmers there were very poor. The rich ones with 50-100 bigha land would not lend me some for my research," said Dr Khaleque.
Discoveries with an eye to protecting the environment
The first discovery of this inventor was "phytohormone inducer." This organic fertiliser, better known as "Swarna," was patented in 1993.
He began researching plants back in England, which gained full steam after returning home.
"My research primarily focused on enhancing the innate fertility of the soil. In the 1980s, I started delving into some natural elements of soil. After much painstaking research I discovered an "inducer," which helps preserve the natural qualities of the soil needed to grow crops," said Dr Khaleque.
"I always think about the natural fertility of the soil. Due to excessive cultivation and the use of unnatural or chemical fertilisers and pesticides, the normal, natural fertility of the soil is seriously decreasing. This infertility is harmful for all of us," he added.
"Compared to chemicals or other fertilisers in the country, a very small amount of 'Swarna' needs to be used. Swarna helps restore the natural qualities of the soil. As a result, when the soil returns to its normal quality, there is no need for additional fertilisers."
Another discovery of Khaleque is 'phytoplankton fertiliser' dubbed 'Rupali.' What 'Swarna' is to land, 'Rupali' is to water. This fertiliser helps balance the natural qualities of water. It helps the growth of 'phytoplankton' or 'plants' on the surface of the water. Fish and other aquatic animals use these microorganisms as food.
This phytoplankton fertiliser helps increase oxygen supply in water and absorb carbon dioxide. Also, it helps to maintain balance among various aquatic plants and animals.
Other discoveries of this scientist in various fields of biology are hydroponic fertiliser, flower fertiliser, curative for fish prone to infectious diseases, potato preservative, sprouting of potato tubers for crop seed, and organic carbon supplement for field crop plants.
"I worked the hardest for my first patent. Then I got into a flow. When I invented rupali, I simply spread it in water and observed whether the water turned green. When I invented the potato tubers preservative, I asked a farmer to apply the formula on five sacks of potato and observed what happened. When I got encouraging results, I moved on to the next phase of my research so that I could turn it into a usable product."
From 1998 to 2003, Dr Khaleque worked on the 'kinematic engine.' He received four patents for different categories of this new type of engine.
About the practical benefits of this invention, he said, "This engine can provide electricity as per demand, without any additional fuel supply. This engine will not pollute the environment." According to the scientist, countries that are suffering from an acute energy crisis or power-shortage can benefit from this invention.
Each patent takes around six to nine months to write. He files patents both with the World Intellectual Property Organisation and the Department of Patents, Designs and Trademarks, Bangladesh.
A life of giving
Dr Khaleque received his latest patent for an electrical power support device, as recently as 2018. We asked him whether England would have been a better place to stay and work on his research.
Dr Khaleque had this to say: "Yes, there is more scope for research in England. But you won't get the credit. The research will belong to the English government. Yes, it pained me to leave, but when I came back home, I found the soil beneath me to be firm, so I never looked back."
In his opinion, the most important things one needs to be a researcher are "vision, tenacity, resources, and literature."
Doing so much research in one lifetime is no mean feat. According to him, his biggest source of support are the ordinary people of this country.
"When I was working on developing Swarna, I worked with 1,100 farmers from all over Bangladesh. Their cooperation is unforgettable."
Not many people with gifts like the ones Dr Khaleque possess chose to return to their homeland. The scientist, however, does not begrudge people who choose not to return.
"When I studied at Dhaka University back in the 1960s, if we told our professor we needed a reagent, he would ask no further questions and make necessary arrangements. On the fourth day, the reagent would be on my desk. In the 80s, when I was contemplating joining Dhaka University as a teacher, I found out that basically no research takes place there. The reason: a highly bureaucratic arrangement. Students have to give a list of the chemicals they need with a year in hand. Chemicals take a minimum of six months to reach students."
He is of the opinion that this waiting around is the reason no meaningful research takes place in the country. As budding researchers realise they cannot really do much here, they look for countries where they can. Thus they head abroad to do research work. He also argues that teachers being involved in politics is a hindrance to research in Bangladesh.
So what is the way out of this situation? He believes the government has a big role to play here.
"They need to overhaul the education system. In England, a department head is next to god for their department. But in Bangladesh, even an associate professor can be a department head, and in local universities, people with no publications can be promoted to associate professor. This needs to change. Our focus should be on gaining knowledge, not a degree or a certificate," Dr Khaleque said. And only the government can make it happen.
Dr Khaleque claims to have never sought to profit monetarily from his products. He believes that if marketed properly, his innovations could make a lot of money, but being a scientist, he was never really interested in the business side of things.
When asked which is his favourite invention, the prolific inventor refused to name just one. He said, "All are my babies. I have given birth to them and all of them are very close to my heart."