August 7, 2007

Ground-Breaking Sustainability Research has National Audience

Engineering students present revolutionary model to the largest chemical companies in the industry

Representatives from 10 of the largest chemical companies in the industry gathered at Lafayette Aug. 9 to witness a presentation from students on a revolutionary, new model for sustainable development.

This model, called the “Sustainable Development Roadmap,” is an adaptable template created to help companies map out the process from A to Z of developing new products and projects in the most sustainable, society-friendly way.

  • Click here to view a video about the research.

The companies represented at the meeting were Air Products & Chemicals, Inc., BASF, Celanese Leadership, Cytek Chemical, Dow Chemical Company, FMC Corporation, Honeywell, Rohm and Haas, Shell Chemical and UOP. Leading representatives from AIChE, including Darlene Schuster, director of the Institute for Sustainability, and Charlene Wall, chair of the Center for Sustainable Technological Practices also attend the meeting.

The American Institute of Chemical Engineers’ (AIChE) Center for Sustainable Technology Practices (CSTP) sponsored Lafayette’s participation in this research, allowing these undergraduate engineering students to be among the first to test this new model.

The students involved are A.B. engineering major and project leader Nigel Martin ’10 (Elkins, W.Va.), A.B. engineering major Alison Disbrow ’08 (Belvidere, N.J.), and chemical engineering majors Jeshua Gonzalez ’09 (Alburtis, Pa.), Martha Were ’09 (Kampala, Uganda), Daniel Goldberg ’09 (Avon, Conn.), and Richard Martin ’09 (Doylestown, Pa.). Javad Tavakoli, professor of chemical engineering, and Sharon Jones, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and chair of A.B. engineering, led the students in their research.

David Taschler ’75, Director of Global Applications at Air Products & Chemicals Inc., promoted the research and assisted Tavakoli and Jones in receiving a grant from AIChE to conduct the research.

“Dr. Taschler was instrumental in bringing this research here,” says Tavakoli. “He is a partner, as well as a representative, in the development of the model, and one of the most loyal alumni Lafayette has, I believe.”

Along with promoting the model and the capabilities of Lafayette’s students and faculty, Taschler assumed the role of activities leader for the project and is also an adjunct faculty member who teaches courses on sustainable development.

“This project continues the excellent tradition of socially responsible engineering that has long been a part of Lafayette’s curriculum,” he says. “It builds upon principles developed in the Technology Clinic, our engineering and professionalism course, and social outreach work by the Landis Community Outreach Center and Engineers Without Borders.”

To test the “Sustainable Development Roadmap,” the students have spent the summer using the model to determine which products will be healthiest to use for the mass production of sustainable biofuels, in this case, ethanol.

“We chose ethanol because we already know very much about it and it has the highest potential of becoming our new fuel,” Tavakoli says.

While ethanol may be a solution to air pollution, the methods of producing it could be a detriment to other facets of society.

“Each country uses something different to produce ethanol,” Tavakoli explains. “For example, Brazil uses sugarcane and we use corn. Corn is a big food source for us. Therefore, using it for the additional purpose of biofuels could severely deplete our breadbasket.”

According to Tavakoli, a company in New York has been developing mechanisms for producing ethanol from willow, which grows in abundance in that area. Lafayette students have been running these mechanisms, as well as those for producing ethanol from corn, through the model to determine which process yields the most benefits at the least cost.

“This model is the best recipe for developing and fine-tuning new projects and products,” Tavakoli says. “It is a guideline that helps researchers to foresee problems and be more socially responsible.”

Taschler comments on the multidisciplinary perspectives being incorporated into the project.

“Chemical engineering majors as well as A.B. engineering majors and their advisors were both equally involved. A.B. engineering majors brought social perspectives along with those of chemical engineers. The students really brought a good multidisciplinary approach.”

During the presentation, the students explained the work they have done all summer, commented on their findings, the pros and cons of their work, and ways to improve the model – including how to make it more generic for all industries and products.

According to Taschler, the model will be revealed to the entire chemical industry at a workshop in Gaithersburg, Md., in September.

Tavakoli believes that the benefits from working on such vast, important projects like this will sustain students into their futures.

“The larger impact [of the research] brings a sense of reality to the project,” he says. “The work is no longer merely conceptual, it is hands-on, and it is not just a once-and-done affair. The students will always be able to draw from this project, not only for the experience, but also for their work on every project from this point onward.”

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