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How Green Engineering Works


Green Engineering Technologies
Solar panels integrated in the roof of a fire station at Houten, near Utrecht, in the Netherlands.
Solar panels integrated in the roof of a fire station at Houten, near Utrecht, in the Netherlands.
Paul Oomen/Getty Images

So what does green engineering look like, exactly, when it's applied to stuff in the real world? Chances are you're surrounded by green-engineered technologies, since sustainability has become such an important consideration in our lives. Here we'll take a quick look at the three major areas you'll most likely encounter green technologies.

Chemistry

Chemistry brings us so many amenities of modern life that it boggles the mind: plastics, computer chips, fuel for our vehicles, paints and pigments, adhesives, batteries, and so much more. The problem is that making these products often creates nasty byproducts that are toxic to people and the environment. To combat this, the technologies of green chemistry use "the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances" [source: Great Lakes Green Chemistry Network].

Here are two examples:

  • One company, LS9 Inc., has developed microbes that create a fuel called UltraDiesel. Produced from biomass, the fuel eliminates toxic compounds such as sulfur, benzene and heavy metals found in traditional petroleum diesel.
  • Biopesticides use non-toxic or less-toxic chemicals to disrupt the life cycles of pest insects without killing non-pests and without posing a danger to species higher up on the food chain -- including people.

Building Construction

The construction industry used to be notorious for how much waste it generated. Odd lengths of two-by-four, scrap drywall and anything else left over after a building was complete would head to the landfill by the Dumpster-load. What's more, the architecture and material for buildings was often made optimal for aesthetics and/or low initial cost, but not optimal for efficiency.

Today, on the other hand, a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification on a building is considered a badge of sophistication, environmental stewardship and smart business. Some green engineering technologies for buildings you're probably already familiar with include compact fluorescent light bulbs, energy-efficient windows and high-efficiency heating and cooling systems. But there are others that have yet to catch on and be so widely adopted:

  • "Green roofs" help regulate building temperature, control storm-water runoff and can even provide food for people in the form of rooftop gardens
  • Modular, pre-fabricated housing fits together on a construction site like a gigantic Lego set; the house gets built faster, less material goes to waste and the buyer saves thousands of dollars compared to building a traditional new home.
  • Passive heating and cooling use the building's design plus its orientation to the sun and wind to keep indoor temperatures in a comfortable range without having to crank up the air conditioning or fire up the furnace.

Automotive

Cars, trucks and other vehicles are rightfully a major focus of companies' green engineering efforts. Not only do they contribute heavily to greenhouse gases that artificially heat up the planet, but vast resources are consumed in making them and maintaining them. Six Sigma and Lean methodologies and the ISO 14001 management system aim to make manufacturing more standardized, less wasteful and overall greener.

Hybrid and full-electric technology aim to make vehicles less polluting by minimizing their use of fossil fuels. Even the materials that cars are made out of are getting the green engineering treatment. Less and less steel is going into vehicle construction as manufacturers look to cut weight with lighter materials such as aluminum, plastics, and even carbon fiber. They have ample incentive -- consumers are demanding more efficient vehicles as fuel prices pummel their pocketbooks with increasing regularity.

For lots more information on green engineering, follow the links on the next page.


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