August 20, 2007

A Passion for the Environment

Nigel Martin ’10 writes about his experience with groundbreaking sustainability research

Nigel Martin ’10 (Elkins, W.Va.) is an A.B. engineering major. He is the student project leader of groundbreaking research called the “Sustainable Development Roadmap.” The project is led by Javad Tavakoli, professor of chemical engineering, and Sharon Jones, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and chair of A.B. engineering. David Taschler ’75, Director of Global Applications at Air Products & Chemicals Inc., assisted Tavakoli and Jones in receiving a grant for the research. The following is a first-person account of Martin’s experience.

What is the meaning of sustainability? Like any other passionate, young student, coming of age in this increasingly enviro-conscious, green-savvy era, I approached this question with confident enthusiasm, feeling quite sure I could give an informed answer. I very quickly learned two important points though; “sustainability” is a very broad term and to truly achieve it, the full picture must be observed.

Addressing these two points is essentially what I and a group of four other chemical and A.B. engineering students, with the guidance of Prof. Javad Tavakoli and Dr. David Taschler ’75, have been trying to accomplish this summer on behalf of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE).

While using data available on ethanol derived from both willow and corn plants as an example product, we evaluated the Sustainability Development Roadmap, a tool developed by the AIChE to take a comprehensive look at the entire lifespan of new industrial products and give a rating based on their sustainability. This project, while honing my research skills and appealing to a passionate interest of mine, has also given me new insight into cooperative teamwork and many other real-world experiences few students my age are exposed to.

Sustainability has become quite the buzz word among different industries, governmental organizations and NGOs and for good reason. Literally meaning “capable of being continued with minimal inputs or adverse effects on surroundings,” sustainability is often associated with green movements or social welfare initiatives.

Increasingly big industries and even governments are seeing the concept of sustainability as a rationale to take responsibility and set standards and examples that will not only incite change but also lead to their own profitability. Yes, more companies are now realizing that responsibility and profit can be synonymous. But as they begin to adopt sustainable practices, the true breadth and magnitude of this endeavor becomes apparent.

Enter the Sustainable Development Roadmap. A product of AIChE’s Center for Sustainable Technology and Practices (CSTP) branch, this model is designed to steer companies through the multiple considerations of sustainability. Literally an extensive list of categorized questions in the format of an Excel spreadsheet that correspond to different stages in the development, manufacture, and disposal of a consumer product, this tool offers both qualitative and quantitative results that will hopefully be a guide to a new era of sustainable development.

The Roadmap is designed to be utilized over a period of years corresponding to a product’s life-cycle. Our task, however, was to use data on two different example products, ethanol derived from both willow trees and corn crops; give an evaluation of the model feasibility and ease-of-use; then make suggestions on how we would restructure or rephrase certain areas.

So in essence there were two tasks; we were researchers and consultants. Along with that came a few presentations and multiple teleconference-based meetings. We were aiding AIChE by giving fresh, slightly inexperienced eyes to a tool full of industrial jargon and potentially confusing structure while they allowed us a rare opportunity to really experience how real-world industry works.

In addition, this project really gave me a new direction and understanding of my own academic path. I had always experienced some confusion when trying to explain exactly what it is that an A. B. engineering major is and will become. Often I’d give a stock answer, the product of brochure tag lines and my personal thoughts. It took being in a real-life situation before I saw the role that A. B. engineering majors are being groomed to fill.

Though the research and overall work was well distributed and highly collaborative, I often tended naturally towards the administrative, organizational tasks and stuck to the questions regarding economic and social issues. When confronting those items dealing with chemistry beyond my “Gen. Chem.” Experience, I found it both helpful and insightful to defer to my chemical engineering partners.

It was a project that required a range of skills as my partners calculated the mass-energy balances of ethanol and I considered the relative worth of corn and willow co-products. But with regular discussions, some patience, and a motivated, flexible team everyone was “in the loop.” This high-level of communication and element of integrated management is in essence what I feel an A. B. engineer is designed to bring to a cooperative team.

It goes without saying that the knowledge I’ve gained on renewable energies and the ethanol industry this summer will be immensely useful in years to come. But more than knowledge, I place value in the experience and level of confidence I’ve gained while doing this job.

Admittedly, with only one year’s college experience I was a bit intimidated by this assignment at first. Moving from the academic world – where you’re really only performing for yourself and a grade – to the industrial arena – where much more is dependant on the work you produce – can be a little daunting.

Eventually I developed a level of calm, developing confidence in my research and regarding teleconferences as routine. Overall, this was a great opportunity and far more than I could have expected at this age. It’s exciting and reassuring to have had this experience which will hopefully be a source of guidance and help down the road.

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