Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Green and Chemical Engineering

Shouldn't engineering and environmentalism be friends?

Chemical engineering is not a field traditionally filled with budding environmentalists. You can think of it as chemistry at scale, think town-sized plants, a maze of pipes, each as wide as a man is tall, with giant flywheeled valves and ladders and catwalks for access. Think fractionation towers, pressurized batch reactors, and a forest of boilers for on-site power and steam. It was a field that came of age under the protective arm of the petroleum industry: how do you refine the crude, and what do you do with it? Haber figured out how to fix nitrogen, but it took chemical engineers at BASF to crank a hundred million tons a year of oil and air back into the earth as artificial fertilizer. Chemists and brewers figured out distillation in the friggin dark ages, but it took chemical engineers to find ways to turn 5.5 billion barrels a year of crude oil into asphalt and methane and everything in between. It took an army of chemical engineers to work out and oversee the cracking of 70 million tons of those products into ethylene, the fundamental component of the plastics industry.

Chemical engineering scared me from plastics recycling as a viable career path, because there was (is?) simply no money in it. Even in the early nineties, I was informed that it's still scads cheaper to pipe and refine raw petroleum product to the production facility. For another class, I went and visited one such facility, the local version of GE plastics, and got to see their gigantic extruders and walk around the impressive dinosaur of a site.

I don't know a lot of people that went on to become members the hardhat and pocket protector crowd. My wife got closer than anyone I know to the traditional Chem E position, and her company screamed obsolescence to walk in the door (it was a depressing place). That big, big industry moved first south and then out, a job at an industry site was a lot less likely when I graduated than it was 50 years previous. Another reason for the decline of the plant engineer is computers. At that time of my college experience, computers were on the forefront of plant design efforts, and RPI, to their credit, was gung-ho about familiarizing students with computerized problem solving. Except that once the software is developed for any application, digital design gets pretty easy (not to mention boring) to pull off. All that thermo and transport and kinetics was useful, don't get me wrong, but more to develop a good engineer's bullshit sense. Although it's good to understand phase diagrams, I sure hope they don't teach the kids that silly graphical McCabe-Thiele analysis anymore.

We Americans live for oil (love those cars, love that air conditioning). And on it (thank Herr Doctor Haber). But even if it's been another suspiciously mild winter, we've avoided living with it, at least if anyone's pointing it out. Our environmentalist sentiment is sufficiently advanced that our backyards have been cleared out, and our regulations sufficiently stringent, our chemical engineering talent sufficiently expensive, that plants got driven right out the door and overseas along with everything else. Even if chemical engineers enabled it--and we did--what got us into this mess was government-subsidized and corporate-delivered avarice (a fact of life, the basis of an economy, but incentivized in exactly the wrong directions). Can chemical engineering clean up the mess?

I like engineers better than environmentalists. That's not because I don't like environmentalism, but your average Movementarian has no sense of proportion or weighting, and even though I agree with them on almost every principle, greenies tend to be only slightly less shrill than your religiously motivated Luddite. Slate's recent green challenge with Treehugger was a case in point of prioritizing the insignificant and difficult to assail. Hipparchia recently noted the Environmental Working Group's web site, and I balked at the splash page decrying fluoridated water supplies. There may be dangers there, but the anti-fluoridation crowd are among the most annoying sorts of retards alive. (The toothless fuckers can't get off the front page of my local paper.) Never trust a damn thing any think tank ever says, kids.

Public health is one of those government functions that are justifiable under Keifus's Libertarian Lite Political Philosophy. The KLLPP also permits environmental regulations as a legitimate reach of the state, principally because the effects of ecological skulduggery span to other citizens than those who created the mess. The underfunded and peculiarly exempted Superfund law was a step in the right direction. (Whodathunk that it would take specific legislation to describe liability for pollution?) The Clean Water Act was another tool to provide government enforcement of environmental regulations. When my parents grew up, they could tell the time of the day by the color of the Naugatuck river. I didn't live through that (but you still shouldn't eat the fish), and for that I can thank the CWA.

Of course you don't find much Goodyear in the birthplace of NaugahydeTM these days, either. I doubt the regulation drove 'em out so much as the pursuit of cheap labor, but no doubt it contributed. But pollution is a global phenomenon, and the developing world* of is fighting mightily to require solutions sooner than later. Why aren't the engineers working on it?

Graduate research in chemical engineering occupies some nexus of chemistry, math, and physics (as does a lot of graduate chemistry). It's been a while since I considered myself a real engineer, veering a little too hard toward either of those first two poles. I first heard the term "green chemistry," I think, through the American Chemical Society, which began sponsoring an annual conference on the subject in 1997. Since then, I've seen it creep in here and there. Like the CWA, a lot of the push seems to be coming through the U.S. EPA. They publish a green engineering textbook, which seems to be more suggestion than requirement just now, but perpetually threatens to become more (maybe if the right government ever comes into session). The military and various government agencies take it seriously at any rate, and developing something "green" can be a good funding angle for federal-sponsored research.

I don't think there's been massive improvements in environmental legislation since the Reagan years, but the national consciousness seems to be lumbering a little more green. No doubt by necessity. It did take the Superfund law to get GE's pants sued off for crapping up the Hudson with pcbs, inspiring the terribly named Ecomagination (the dumbest thing since fungineering). Green engineering is a public relations tool, it pops up in trendy and scary fields (some of which embodies some truly laughable ideas of green chemistry by the way), and it even plagues the image-hungry and notoriously polluted China as the 2008 Olympics approach. It's an outside pretty face, but at least people feel it's becoming necessary.

Is it a powerful enough force to inspire a new generation of eager green engineers? The EPA keeps a stat sheet of some 90 or so Chem E departments that sponsor green programs, but that doesn't really give it a gauge as to the field's importance. I checked with my alma mater to find, to my disappointment, that greeniness is lumped in with environmental engineering (i.e., chemical engineering for dummies) and, even worse, with the science and technology studies** program (i.e., for those who can't do engineering at all). Looks like it's still more a guideline than a rule.

Can our new chemical engineers make environmentally friendly industrial processes? Can they reduce our agricultural demand for water and fertilizer? Can they save us from ourselves? They may need a bigger kick in the ass.


* I don't like this label for China and India.
** one professor of which once gave me some early writing encouragement. Don't know whether to love or hate him for it.


Claude Scales said...

By interesting coincidence, there was this article about Stewart Brand, by John Tierney, in today's Times. Brand was one of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, later founded Whole Earth Catalog, and more recently has been involved in a lot of computer and web issues. He now advocates a re-examination of nuclear power and thinks genetic engineering offers the promise of great environmental benefits by reducing the need for pesticides and fertilizer. His distinction between "rational" and "romantic" environmentalism stikes a chord with me. I think we need romanticism - life would be awfully dull without it - but, like Brand, I lean toward the rational when confronted with decisions about the best use of resources.

Keifus said...

Agree that genetic engineering has enormous potential. Water- and fertilizer-efficient crops would be a huge boon. I'm skeptical about the guardianship. People should care more, in these days while public opinion still checks the government a little.

(In my darker moments I'm not happy how these improvements would also encourage the breeding of more people, however.)

Nuclear sounds good, but the waste problem is hardly trivial, and there's not a whole lot of material out there, really.

Will read the article however (at least if I don't have to pay for it).