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From the Editor: What Does Sustainable Engineering Mean to Me?

Robert Schickel on September 7, 2023 - in Articles, Column

It’s September, which means it’s time for the Informed Infrastructure Sustainable Engineering Special Issue. This is the third year a special issue has focused on engineering projects and research related to sustainability, which plays an important role in everyone’s life. Sustainable engineering affects water supply and quality, waste disposal, construction materials, pollution reduction, natural resources, environmental concerns, and much more.

For this column, I tried to select some new (at least to me) projects, topics and materials pointing at how engineers are taking sustainability to the next level. Although retired, I read about the engineering world to keep current. Besides, I teach a civil and environmental engineering senior project course, and I want to be able to point out what those students can expect after graduation.

A definition of sustainable engineering I like comes from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO): “The process of using resources in a way that does not compromise the environment or deplete the materials for future generations.” It’s designing, building and using systems that don’t compromise the natural environment so our children and future generations can continue to live at least as well as we have. If you have read any of my columns from previous issues, this is one of my most-important priorities that I’m trying to pass on to whoever will listen to me.

Personal Interests

The following are some positive sustainable initiatives I have recently heard or read about. I’m not a technical expert on any of these; I only see the potential for sustainability and encourage you to learn more about those that interest you.

Green concrete (obviously not the color) contains at least some reused or waste components. Reusing materials directly relates to less energy to produce them and therefore less carbon-dioxide emissions. Certainly, this qualifies as a sustainable solution.

I saw an article that briefly described “hempcrete” made from the hemp plant that’s easy to grow, grows very quickly and is readily harvested. It has limited uses but is currently being studied for insulation. The article also discussed “ashcrete,” which replaces some of the cement in the concrete mix with fly ash that typically is discarded. Again, this saves energy and reduces emissions.

Near my home, there’s a large wind-turbine farm. I drive through Meadow Lake Wind Farm in northwest Indiana along I-65 on my way to and from Indianapolis. It’s impressive to drive for miles and see power being generated by what seems to be an invisible force. I remember seeing signs against the installation posted by folks who have since benefited financially and through clean electricity.

However, there’s now a concern about what to do with the turbine blades when they wear out. They last about 20 to 25 years and are made of a non-biodegradable material. Currently, they’re put in landfills or incinerated, neither of which is good for the environment. Engineers, however, are finding solutions to reuse these blades. The materials are being repurposed as bus shelters and park facilities. Even better, some are being reused as bridges (see http://bladebridge.ie). This is almost enough incentive for me to come out of retirement to become part of a company that designs bridges from wind-turbine parts!

Another topic I’m personally interested in (because I drive an electric vehicle) is the announcement of seven automakers teaming up to expand the electric vehicle charging network. The companies stated they will install “at least” 30,000 high-speed chargers (bit.ly/440hsZa), and two things about this are important. One is obviously the addition of more stations to make life easier as we move toward more electric vehicles on the road. Another is the fact that large, competing companies are working together. In these times, unfortunately, this isn’t common, and I’m excited to know such partnerships can happen.

Not Fun Facts

The emphasis on sustainable engineering comes to light when we read about climate change and work toward solutions to solve this major problem. Here are some facts I heard recently:

• Four out of five people on our planet experienced hotter July human-caused climate change.

• More than 6.5 billion people, or 81 percent of the world’s population, sweated through at least one day where climate change had a significant effect on the average daily temperature, according to a new report issued by Climate Central (www.climatecentral.org).

• Researchers looked at 4,711 cities and found climate-change fingerprints in 4,019 of them for July 2023 (bit.ly/440cLyD).

In Indiana, we were somewhat lucky in that, while it was definitely hot, it wasn’t the extreme temperatures others felt. But we as engineers must look beyond what we experience in our own little backyards and continue to look for ways to preserve our environment and create the best world we can for those among us globally and those yet to come. 

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About Robert Schickel

Robert Schickel was born in New Jersey and received his BS in Civil Engineering degree in 1971 from Valparaiso University in Indiana. His career started as a bridge design engineer and expanded to include design of various transportation facilities, including highways, bridges, rail lines and stations, and airport runways. Mr. Schickel managed engineering offices ranging from 20 to 140 people. He also served as a consultant to a large utility company. Mr. Schickel currently resides in Indiana and serves as Adjunct Professor for the College of Engineering at Valparaiso University. He enjoys his retired life at his lake house, playing golf, listening to music and spending time with his family, especially his grandchildren.

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