Engineering and Earth Systems: Can We Educate a New Breed of Engineers?

author: Philip M. Gschwend, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: May 23, 2011,   recorded: June 2006,   views: 2973
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Description

Asbestos and chlorofluorocarbons earned their initial reputations as highly effective solutions to common, every day problems. But after a few decades, these breakthrough compounds earned more sinister distinctions, as powerful disrupters of human and environmental health.

Philip Gschwend believes scientists have enough evidence by now to anticipate that new compounds will routinely diffuse into the environment over time, often with destructive effect. For instance, Gschwend says, “It’s not rocket science” to project and demonstrate how MTBE, which refiners have been adding to gasoline for years to reduce tailpipe emissions, leaches into the water supply. If you know how a chemical moves through soil and groundwater, you can estimate the concentrations of MTBE that will end up in wells and reservoirs.

This potential carcinogen is now being phased out in many locations. But ever more obscure chemical elements are showing up in industrial processes and the equipment on which we depend for contemporary life. “We invent and design but don’t think about the environmental consequences,” says Gschwend. “The problem is absolutely everywhere.”

So Gschwend is on an “evangelical mission” to change the approach engineers and scientists take when developing new products and processes. Society continues to require technology that works better, faster and more cost-effectively, but it can’t continue to pump out compounds that throw the ecosystem and human health out of whack. The key, says Gschwend, is to introduce the issue of environmental impact early on in the production cycle. In addition, engineers should look more to nature for lessons in how to put materials together safely and sustainably. And perhaps MIT should help create a new engineering specialty in environmentally compatible design.

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