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Sustainability-driven engineering – A paradigm shift

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Challenges regarding the sustainability of technologies and consumption are reported on a daily basis in the press. These challenges act as drivers for change and include, among others, climate change, plastic pollution in the oceans and collapsing bird populations. They have forced us to completely rethink the roadmap to sustainable life on earth. We are witnessing a paradigm shift to sustainability in engineering and all other aspects of life.    

I have worked nearly 25 years with inventions as well as product and technology development. At the beginning of my career, in the late 1970s, this saw me working on combustion engines where the only goal seemed to be to achieve as much horsepower as possible: I have lived the life of a young car enthusiast with tremendous horsepower combustion engines and moved on to that of an aging engineer confronting sustainability challenges. My understanding of technologies and their connection to the environment has changed completely.

In this article, I present some pioneers of sustainable thinking, the ideal of 0-effect and forces shaping the changes required in our ways of doing things. This will require a fundamental shift in how we operate and think.

Change is gaining momentum

One can already see changes in some companies where engineers are seriously working on new and more sustainable technologies; taking the first tiny steps to the future. 

The changes are important. It is widely held by climatologists and the scientific community at large that even significant changes in production and consumption patterns may not be enough to ward off catastrophic climate change. The planetary boundaries model developed by the Stockholm Resilience Centre indicates that many other boundaries than climate changes are approaching or have been exceeded. The goal can only be sustainable human operation.

paradigm_shift_planetary_boundaries

Planetary boundaries/Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Pioneers of sustainability

Too few people have considered sustainability from human and engineering perspectives; a few examples, nevertheless exist.

In the late 1960s, Richard Buckminster Fuller, who had already in the 1920s critiqued and reflected on the unsustainable way of human life, penned the “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth”. It contains interesting and relevant thoughts for today with regards sustainability and its meaning.

“We are witnessing a paradigm shift to sustainability 
in engineering and all other aspects of life.”

Buckminster Fuller’s definition of sustainable technologies is particularly interesting. In his definition, he compares the use of fossil fuels with a car battery that has to be charged after use. He indicates that the carbon used should be bound before more can be used. In his view, this limits the use of fossil energy only to the manufacturing of production devices and tools. With today’s knowledge, we can see that Buckminster Fuller was very close the correct evaluation of the sustainable possibilities of carbon consumption.

He also popularised the term synergy and the expression doing more with less, which refers to the necessity of synergetic use of resources, e.g. in rooms and spaces that are underused such as beds that are slept in only 33% of the time.

In the 1970s, Paul McCready, who led the development of aircraft powered by small energy sources, ventured that a human could fly with the help of only muscle power and solar energy. He also led the development of the first generation of prototypes for mass production electrical cars.

A lesser-known fact is that AeroVironment Inc., which was founded by McCready, has been a top drone technology developer and forerunner; applications that use little energy and provide concrete proof of the saying doing more with less.

Ray Anderson is often referred to as the world’s greenest CEO. When managing the world’s largest modular carpet company, Interface Inc., he showed that even wall-to-wall carpeting production can be sustainable. Anderson’s goal for the company is to erase its negative footprint on the environment completely by 2020.

If we’re successful, we’ll spend the rest of our days harvesting yesteryear’s carpets and other petrochemically derived products, and recycling them into new materials; and converting sunlight into energy; with zero scrap going to the landfill and zero emissions into the ecosystem. And we’ll be doing well … very well … by doing good. That’s the vision.
– Ray Anderson, 1997

I am familiar with the idea of considering matters for a solution perspective in development work. In this article, I also approach the problem of sustainability from a problem solving perspective, by creating scenarios for development and an engineering goal framework.

Not sustainable, not affordable

From practical experience, the following three factors tend to play the biggest roles in in engineering and development decisions: Cost & profitability, technical feasibility, and market approvability. The weight and order of the factors vary. Other factors naturally also play a role, but the above-mentioned are the most important.

In the paradigm shift in engineering, it will be essential to increase the role of sustainability. It should, in fact, become the most important factor in decision-making and be integrated with specifications and legislation; if something is not sustainable, it is not affordable. Sustainability will, as such, be more important than even price or high profit margins.

We often hear examples of technologies that we cannot develop or that are impossible to develop with current know-how. At the same time, several studies indicate, for example, how much energy is wasted.

The example in the text box below regarding the efficiency of energy use is from the book “Sustainable Engineering”. It illustrates that the overall efficiency of a pump, whose energy has been generated from oil, is quite low. 87% of the energy is lost along the way. We naturally have to review and develop the entire chain to achieve better efficiency and all parties in the supply chain need to participate therein or to exit the chain. 

     
       

Efficiency of energy use
Determine the efficiency of energy utilization for a pump. Assume the following efficiencies in the energy conversion:

  • Crude oil to fuel oil is 90% (0.90) (i.e. the energy to produce and refine crude oil consumes 10% of the energy of the crude oil input to the process).
  • Fuel oil to electricity is 40% (0.40) (i.e. the conversion of thermal energy into electrical energy occurs with an efficiency of 40%, roughly the average for the U.S. electrical grid).
  • Electricity transmission and distribution is 90% (0.90) (i.e. losses of electricity in transmission from the power plant to the point of use are 10%).
  • Conversion of electrical energy into mechanical energy of the fluid being pumped is 40% (i.e. the efficiency of the pump in converting electrical energy into the mechanical energy of the fluid is 40%).
  • SOLUTION: The overall efficiency for the primary energy source is the product of all of the individual conversion efficiencies.

    Overall efficiency = (0.90)(0.40)(0.90)(0.40) = 0.13 or 13%

    Source: Sustainable Engineering, Allen & Shonnard, p. 7

 
     

 

The flow chart in Diagram 1 is from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. It displays US energy consumption and losses in 2017. It indicates that only 31% of primary energy is preserved for use. By studying LLNL’s flow charts dating back to the 1970’s, it becomes clear that the efficiency of energy use has not increased since the 1970s, in fact, the situation has worsened.

We can also ponder whether this and supply chains of similar efficiency have been designed as such, or whether they were created by chance and have, over time, become part of our industrial culture? 

paradigm_shift_energy_consumption

Diagram 1. Estimated U.S. Energy Consumption in 2017: 97.7 Quads. (Source: LLNL, April 2018. https://flow charts.llnl.gov/home).

Towards a sustainable future

In product development and problem solving, different methods have been created to support thinking and understanding. Together, these methods form streamlined process tools. The tools listed below were used in the following sustainable scenario example:

    1. Timeline method (Vocabulary book)
    2. Ideal solution (Description from TRIZ method)
    3. Scenarios

To create scenarios, we set an ideal goal as per Fuller: Recyclable and renewable materials, renewable energy, harmless to all living organisms on earth. Scenarios for the timeline can be created e.g. as follows:

    1. 2020 developing sustainable thinking, tiny steps achieved led bulbs, EU truck regulations etc
    2. 2050 Changed paradigm of engineering and technologies, 0 carbon nominal applications
    3. 2100 0-effect technologies increased volume of lifeforms and volume on planet earth

The idea behind example scenarios is that the sustainability goals guide technology development in a more sustainable direction at first and finally in a definitively sustainable direction. By 2100, the majority of technologies used by humans should be completely harmless to the environment and allow the development and reproduction of living organisms on earth.

When we compare the goals to environmental research, currently available technologies and their environmental impact, known development projects and our own experience of the speed of technological development, it is easy to see why environmentalists are concerned.

Summary

Changes in the world and environment are forcing us to alter the way we make technical decisions and plans. In many areas, we have already exceeded the boundaries of sustainability. All engineering is done for the future. Currently, we have better engineering and analysis tools at our disposal than ever before in our history.

We cannot engineer the future only based on best practices of the industrial age. We have to create new ways of working, a new engineering paradigm where sustainability is a significant factor in decision-making and, in the end, the most important.

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