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Engineering goes green

The college’s favorite color connects to more than just St.¬†Patrick

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  • Story by Chris Blose
  • Illustration by Josh Nichols
  • Published: March 13, 2008
St. Patrick illustration

Around mid-March, a strange thing happens at the College of Engineering: People start wearing a lot of green. The occasional figure shows up dressed as St. Patrick, complete with flowing beard and green robes. The dome of Jesse Hall glows green at night. All of these things come in celebration of Engineers' Week, or E-week.

That’s just one week, though. All year long, students and scholars in engineering take the “green” connection to another level through environmentally friendly research and actions — from electric cars and alternative energy to recycled materials and energy audits.

In honor of E-Week at Mizzou, Mizzou Wire presents a few of the many examples of the university’s green engineering. Let us know if you have more examples.

Turning byproducts into new products

The researchers at engineering’s Biomaterials and Bioprocessing Center can take seemingly useless byproducts and convert them into something both useful and valuable.

Take glycerol, for example. When people turn soybean oil into biodiesel — a product for which demand continues to grow — they produce glycerol as a byproduct. Where some might see this glycerol as waste, Galen Suppes, associate professor of chemical engineering and mechanical and aerospace engineering, sees it as a potential way to make more money and, in fact, less waste.

That’s because Suppes can turn glycerol into propylene glycol, which can be used as an environmentally friendly and nontoxic antifreeze or de-icer. So where there was just one product from the costly biodiesel production process, now there are two. In the end, the process becomes more economically viable and sustainable. For this idea, Suppes won the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award.

The idea of turning byproducts into new products extends to the center’s other research: turning corn cobs into a storage mechanism for natural gas tanks (already tested in a vehicle at the University of Missouri-Kansas City) and potentially for hydrogen storage in future plug-in hybrid cars; creating soy-based polymers for such uses as refrigeration and bedding; turning other vegetable-based byproducts into fire-retardant or insulating materials.

“All this is based on the idea that we need to get the highest value out of ‘green’ technology possible,” Suppes says.

Environmentally friendly bottom lines

Students and faculty in engineering have a simple, clear message for captains of industry: What’s good for the environment also can be good for business.

They spread that message in part at the Industrial Assessment Center (IAC), which opened in September 2006 and is one of 26 such centers nationwide. Bin Wu, director of the center and an industrial and manufacturing systems engineering professor, says one of the main goals is to perform energy audits for small- to medium-sized companies statewide. The center has helped 24 companies so far in all corners of the state.

During these audits, students and faculty assess what changes a company can make to save energy — and thereby save money. They suggest changing lighting, sealing doors and windows, updating and upgrading air compressors, using heat and air conditioning more efficiently, and more.

Industry benefits by saving money. Students benefit by putting industrial engineering into practice. “When they become graduates, they will be leaders in energy efficiency in whatever area they work,” Wu says.

Other students will be doing similar work but with a different focus starting this spring and summer. The college is sponsoring a new internship program along with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Missouri Environmental Assistance Center.  Whereas the IAC focuses on energy efficiency, the new internship will have students advising businesses about how to generate less waste, which also leads to savings.

“This is the type of work that industrial engineers have been doing for a long time,” says Robert Reed, a research associate professor who is helping develop the program, “but with a major federal program supporting it, this particular activity is getting a shot in the arm.”

Safety inspectors for the nanorevolution

Around the world and particularly at Mizzou, nanotechnology research shows huge potential — for targeted drug delivery, cancer therapies, electronics, explosives systems and much more. As with any new technology, though, researchers want to proceed responsibly.

That’s why Baolin Deng, civil and environmental engineering associate professor, and Hao Li, mechanical and aerospace engineering assistant professor, are assessing the environmental impact of nanomaterials. The two work with U.S. Geological Survey researchers on an EPA-funded study on the effects of those materials on aquatic life.

“Once these materials are released in the environment,” Deng says, “they usually will end up in the water and sediment. If the materials are too toxic, they could disturb the whole ecosystem.” In particular, Deng wants to look at the effects of the heavy metals that nanomaterials often contain.

The study runs through 2010 and could provide guidelines for researchers as the nanorevolution builds momentum.

 “Overall, I think it’s important to look at the environmental impact before any harm can be done,” Deng says.

Read more in:  Agriculture & the EnvironmentScience & Technology

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012