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How Green Engineering Works

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

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.

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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

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Depending on whom you ask, engineers and scientists follow anywhere between half a dozen and a dozen principles of green engineering. These guidelines let makers of products come to decisions more easily during the development process.

While the specifics may vary from one industry to the next, there are a few generally accepted principles of green engineering. Chief among them is the idea that it makes more sense to start designing for sustainability right from the start -- as opposed to trying to make a product or process greener after it's been built or put into place. Another principle: make things as simple as possible, in terms of the number of materials and steps needed to complete them. That's because more complex something is, the more stuff and energy have to be consumed during its life cycle -- the time from its creation to after its being discarded.

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To find out what the principles look like when they're put into practice, go to the next page, where we'll talk about 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

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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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Sources

  • American Chemistry Society. "12 Principles of Green Engineering." (April 19, 2011) http://portal.acs.org/portal/acs/corg/content?_nfpb=true&_pageLabel=PP_ARTICLEMAIN&node_id=1415&content_id=WPCP_007505&use_sec=true&sec_url_var=region1&__uuid=9961aa04-bd97-474c-977f-72a93914464e
  • Environmental Protection Agency. "Green Engineering." (April 17, 2011) http://www.epa.gov/opptintr/greenengineering/index.html
  • Gibney, Kate. "Cleaning Up on Cleaning Up." ASEE Prism. January 2009. (April 16, 2011) http://www.eng.vt.edu/green/definition
  • Great Lakes Green Chemistry Network. "What Is Green Chemistry and Green Engineering?" (April 21, 2011) http://www.glgc.org/what-green-chemistry
  • Pernick, Ron and Wilder, Clint. "The Clean Tech Revolution: The Next Big Growth and Investment Opportunity." Collins. New York. 2007.
  • Rogers, Heather. "Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy Is Undermining the Green Revolution." Scribner, New York. 2010.
  • Virginia Tech College of Engineering. "Green Engineering." (April 19, 2011) http://www.eng.vt.edu/green

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