Green Science Image Gallery
Green Science Image Gallery

The Nissan LEAF prototype electric car on display at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Mich., on Jan. 12, 2010. See more green science pictures.

Bryan Mitchell/Getty Images

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In the not-so-distant past, businesses seldom went out of their way to draw attention to their impact on the environment. For one thing, the impact often wasn't all that good -- a lot of waste and pollution would go into turning raw materials into a shiny new thing that customers purchased in stores.

For another, the stakeholders of companies, that is, government regulators, owners of stock, people who shared their communities with firms, and customers didn't really expect as much as they do today in the way of "green" business practices.

Contrast that with today where nearly every company that makes something is under scrutiny for how friendly its processes and products are to the environment.

There's actually an entire discipline that's bubbled up around the idea of making things better for the environment right from the start. That discipline is called green engineering.

The basic definition of green engineering, according to the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech, is "environmentally conscious attitudes, values, and principles, combined with science, technology, and engineering practice, all directed toward improving local and global environmental quality" [source: Virginia Tech].

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers a similar, complementary definition. According to the EPA, "Green Engineering is the design, commercialization and use of processes and products that are feasible and economical while: reducing the generation of pollution at the source; and minimizing the risk to human health and the environment" [source: Environmental Protection Agency].

We see examples of green engineering around us every day. Whether it's a Nissan LEAF electric car, a new downtown office tower built to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard, or biodegradable cups from the local coffee shop, green engineering has embedded itself into the fabric of our daily lives.

In this article, we'll examine the differences between green engineering and engineering that doesn't take environmental costs into account. We'll look at the fundamental principles of green engineering, as well as some of the technologies that put those principles into practice.

As any good engineer knows, before you start building, you need a solid plan. When it comes to green engineering, the people who design products start with a set of basic principles to govern how they perform their work.

Find out the principles of green engineering on the next page