Search Results for: sustainability

Science Wednesday: Square Pegs, Round Holes, and Chemical Safety for Sustainability

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Jeff Morris, PhD

All our lives we have been cautioned against trying to fit square pegs into round holes. The metaphor itself is constructed to make such an effort seem foolish and just a bit unsavory: forcing the hard edges of a square into the smooth curves of a circle evokes a certain violence and violation of geometric propriety. And the message behind the saying is clear: don’t try to join things that clearly don’t belong together.

However, fitting square pegs into round holes is just what we are doing in EPA’s Office of Research and Development: we are encouraging new collaborations between scientific disciplines to formulate innovative science questions to address chemical safety. We think this is a very good thing, but it does raise questions.

What, for instance, does cultural anthropology have to do with molecular design? Perhaps nothing; or perhaps quite a bit. A cultural anthropologist would be interested in how a society’s institutions shape the tools it creates and how it uses those tools. A chemist or engineer designs a chemical or material object with some intention in mind. (Design implies intent: nobody creates something for no reason). Once designed, how will society use the new chemical or material? Importantly for EPA, will it be used in a way that minimizes impact on, or perhaps even improves, the environment and human well-being? Neither the chemist nor the anthropologist alone can answer these questions. But perhaps the two of them, together with environmental scientists, can. Maybe a fit can be found for a square peg within a round hole.

Finding flex in the square peg/round hole metaphor doesn’t mean forcing fits that don’t make sense. In EPA’s Chemical Safety for Sustainability Research Program, sometimes we will need to just let chemists do their chemistry within their own disciplinary space. However, all the while we can be mindful that sometimes square edges can be rounded off and the walls of circles stretched, and bringing together very different scientific disciplines can lead to the shaping of innovative research questions that take science in new and rewarding directions. Since old ways of working within disciplinary boundaries have not always given us science and technology that has advanced environmental sustainability, perhaps it’s time to not take as given old sayings and metaphors, and see if we can’t fit a few square pegs into round holes.

About the author: Jeff Morris, PhD is the National Program Director for Nanotechnology in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Becoming a Sustainability Ambassador in Rural Panama

By Sheng Wu

A week before I was to go with a small team of students to electrify the homes of some of the families living in Chagres National Park, I was excited and nervous at the same time. Installing the solar panels and wiring wasn’t the scary part—I knew we could pull that off. I felt a bigger challenge would be to see if we could use the installation of the solar panel systems as a spark for building an appreciation for sustainability.

The trip was part of our 2007 award-winning EPA P3 project “Solar Photovoltaic System Design for a Remote Community in Panama.”
On the trip, we had the ambitious goal to install solar panel systems for five families in the village of Santa Librada, and then to teach them how to get the most out of their new systems—all in about a day and a half.

Thankfully, David and Maribel—friends from a village where our student group had previously installed systems—accompanied us to help. Besides their skilled hands, our two friends brought their knowledge and experience using the systems. This expertise, which they eagerly shared with the local community, proved to be as valuable as their help installing the panels.

With all the support the people of Santa Librada showed us, the five installations were finished in no time. When their kids were home from school, we taught families how the solar panel systems collect energy from the sun and store it in a battery. And at each house, we were happy to see David and Maribel talking to the families about the importance of sustainable behaviors such as conserving electricity and properly disposing of fluorescent light bulbs.

At the end of the day, everyone was satisfied with what had been accomplished. Community members gained hands-on experience helping install solar panel systems for their own homes. Our team learned how a culture of sustainability can be important in rural Panama. Children and adults alike explored what it means to “live sustainably.”

I’m confident that we successfully shared the importance of watching electricity use and going easy on the batteries so our partner families can financially sustain their solar panel systems.

About the Author: Sheng Wu is a chemical engineering major at Northwestern University (NU). He traveled with NU’s Engineers for a Sustainable World over spring break to work on a solar house electrification project in rural Panama.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Science Wednesday: From Policeman to Risk Assessor to Innovator: Sustainability at EPA

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Dr. Alan D. Hecht

On November 30, 2010 EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced that on the occasion of EPA’s 40th anniversary the Agency was asking the National Research Council to conduct a study on how to make the concept of sustainability operational at EPA.

The Administrator’s briefing was an historic event aimed at laying the groundwork for a new approach to environmental management aimed at better addressing problems of the 21st century.

Listening to the Administrator’s announcement, I thought of EPA’s history and how its role has evolved from policeman, to risk assessor and potentially now to environmental innovator.

After EPA was first created in 1970 it quickly became the federal government’s chief watchdog against environmental pollution. In those early days the nation’s major environmental challenges – largely related to poor industrial practices and inadequate occupational safety – were highly visible and often not difficult to understand. Federal legislation addressed obvious causes of pollution and water contamination, enacting specific laws to achieve cleaner land, air and water.

Complementing and moving beyond its role as a watchdog, EPA soon began to use risk assessment and risk management as an overall framework for Agency decisions.    The value of risk assessment and management was given a big boost in 1983 when the National Research Council published Risk Assessment in the Federal Government: Managing the Process. The report helped advance risk assessment and management in EPA programs.

Today however, the scientific and environmental communities are recognizing that risk assessment and risk management must be complemented by an emphasis on sustainable approaches and solutions to environmental problems.

Sustainability science takes into account that no problem the Agency faces narrowly affects only air or water or land. It tells us that we need a far more integrated approach using new tools and metrics to implement EPA actions and to achieve our mission. It also underlines that we must attract a new generation of scientists and scholars who can be innovative in addressing complex problems.

Administrator Jackson is mandating each of us to address, under new conditions, the challenge that former Administrator Bill Reilly clearly articulated in 1995: “The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is at its best when it views its role as not just custodial but as cutting-edge, providing leadership and prescribing answers to key environmental problems.”

Sustainability science can help us and the Agency be at our best.

About the Author: Dr. Alan D. Hecht is Director for Sustainable Development in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Science Wednesday: The Future is Sustainability

By Paul Anastas

LPJ-at-NRCWow! November 30th was an amazing day for the EPA. Not only are we in the midst of commemorating four decades of accomplishments in protecting the health and the environment, but Administrator Jackson also made a landmark speech at the Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Science on the future of the EPA. That future is sustainability. The Administrator laid out her vision to a packed house of luminaries from across the spectrum, from academia to industry, to environmental groups.

The speech launched a study being conducted by the National Research Council (NRC) to provide an operational framework for EPA to incorporate sustainability into all the work we do; all of our decisions and all of our actions. While the Administrator was clear to emphasize that dramatic change like this doesn’t occur overnight, she also made it clear that just as the risk paradigm before it, a sustainability framework can have impact everyday even as it is continually refined and honed. In the summer of next year (2011) the NRC report with all of its recommendations will be completed and ready for review by the Agency. What this means is that we will continue to move forward and progress beyond the problem-by-problem approach to environmental protection and recognize that all environmental issues are linked; climate to energy; energy to water; water to agriculture, etc. We know that systems problems call for systems solutions and this sustainability framework will help us more effectively and more potently accomplish our mission in the future.

The body of excellent work on sustainability science has been rapidly growing for over two decades. There is widespread recognition across the scientific community that sustainability, holistic thinking, and a systems approach to environmental protection are the only way forward. The study launched yesterday is the critical step that so many sustainability scientists have been waiting for.

So what does this mean for the work of EPA? It means that the excellent work that is already being done—the science, the research, the innovative thinking and technology development—will of course continue. But, our work will be revitalized by taking advantage of the new tools, perspectives and enhanced effectiveness that goes along with sustainability.

The response to the Administrator’s announcement was uniformly positive and enthusiastic. This positive energy will continue to grow as the power and potential of sustainability science is realized.

Yesterday was a tremendous day for sustainability. But what’s most exciting is that it was just the beginning.

About the Author: Paul Anastas is the Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development, and is widely known as “The Father of Green Chemistry.”

Science Wednesday: The Sustainability Bowl. (Go Team Go!)

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Aaron Ferster

It’s that time of year again. Time for preparations, gathering the appropriate supplies, and making necessary travel arrangements. Naturally, I’m referring to the annual ritual of figuring out what college football team is the best.

By ushering in the holiday season, Thanksgiving Day marks the unofficial beginning of the earnest debate over which handful of college football teams are worthy of consideration for the big-time bowl games that will decide which team is this year’s champion.

But while college football is sure to command gobs of newsprint and hours of sports talk radio over the next six weeks or so, another kind of competition has recently unfolded on campuses across the country to somewhat less fanfare. Instead of athleticism, this one aims to recognize colleges for their sustainability prowess.

According to its web site, “the Campus Conservation Nationals 2010 is a nationwide resource use reduction competition that challenges college and university campuses to achieve the greatest electricity and water use reductions during a 3-week period.”

The contest is sponsored in part by a company founded by a winning team from EPA’s P3 (People, Prosperity and the Planet) competition. The team used their funding awards to develop a “dashboard” system that allows building occupants, such as dorm residents, to wirelessly monitor their electricity and water usage in real-time.

To test their idea, the P3 team pitted two dorms against each other to see who could reduce their energy and water usage the most. As you would expect, when residents were able to keep a close eye on energy use, they were more motivated to conserve.

The idea proved to be a real winner, and the team was able to parlay their success at the EPA P3 sustainable design competition into launching a successful small business. It’s one of several P3 success stories that have not only brought sustainable ideas to the marketplace but helped create jobs.

While a college competition for energy and water consumption savings may not fill a stadium full of spectators, in the long run it could provide just as important a legacy as a national football championship.

About the Author: A science writer-editor in EPA’s Office of Research and Development, Aaron Ferster is also editor of Science Wednesday.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Science Wednesday: Learning About Green Chemistry and Sustainability

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

My introduction to “green chemistry” came a few weeks ago when I sat in on a Sustainability Workshop conducted for EPA’s Office of Research and Development. The workshop was led by John C. Warner, Ph.D., founder of the Warner-Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry.

Dr. Warner has been honored with numerous awards, has hundreds of patents to his name, and enjoys widespread recognition in his field. He also co-authored Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice with EPA Assistant Administrator Paul Anastas, a book largely responsible for setting the Green Chemistry movement in motion.

During his presentation, Dr. Warner stated, “I have synthesized over 2,500 compounds, and I have never been taught what makes a chemical toxic. I have no idea what makes a chemical an environmental hazard!”

That certainly got my attention. How could it be possible that a chemist at the top of his field had never studied toxicity? Dr. Warner offered a surprising answer to this question. “In order to earn a degree in chemistry,” he stated, “no university requires any demonstration of knowledge regarding toxicity or environmental impact.” The presence of toxins, he explained “always gets found out later in the process because it’s not part of the training.”

Green Chemistry, I learned, is designed to change that. Its principles aim for less hazardous chemical synthesis and striving to design safer chemicals instead of dealing with hazard throughout the process. Of course this is not a simple matter, and Dr. Warner detailed just how complex and challenging it is. “It’s an incremental process”, he said, one which requires much research, hard work, and innovation. Products have already been patented, however, that have been designed following the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry.

“We’ve got to celebrate the improvements where they are” Warner says, and we have to proceed with the mind set to change the status quo. Green chemistry has the potential to protect human health and safety while creating more cost effective and better performing alternatives to the current process and products.

It seems that green chemistry is a huge frontier for further exploration and research as well as a huge opportunity not only for universities but for science in the U.S. as well. Green Chemistry has many other facets in addition to those I have mentioned. Although I was just recently introduced to the topic, Dr. Warner has helped me see how incredibly important it is.

About the Author: Cathryn Courtin is a student at Georgetown University in the Science, Technology, and International Affairs program. She is spending her summer working as a student contractor at EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Science Wednesday: Sustainability and Leadership

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

Sustainability has become a buzzword in recent years when discussing current environmental events. On the heels of the BP Oil Spill, it has become an imperative. Last week I attended a speech by Paul T. Anastas, Ph.D., EPA’s Assistant Administrator for the Office of Research and Development. The speech was the keynote address at the American Chemical Society’s Annual Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference.

Anastas, the “father of green chemistry” and one of the founders of the conference, focused his remarks on the importance of leadership and the opportunity for innovation in the fields of green chemistry and engineering. Using the oil spill as an example, the speech was punctuated by stirring images, including the technologically impressive offshore drilling platform and the less than inventive booms, one of the tools employed during the clean-up. It made me question the decision to put all our stock into technology that is efficient at acquiring natural resources, but fails to protect or sustain them.

As a student of architecture who has worked on projects involving sustainable design I was pleased to hear Anastas champion elegant technology. His comments made me think about my own attempts to foster sustainability. With any new idea, cutting-edge technology can only get you so far. An ugly idea is unappealing to the general public. However, when technology is wrapped in an attractive and efficient package it can be successful. Clearly, technology is only one part of the equation to reach sustainable goals, and I think a lot of work must be done to bridge the gap between ideology and practice.

I was particularly struck by the remark that Anastas made about how he coined the term “green chemistry,” choosing the label green based on both environmental and economic principles (“Green is the color of money,” he pointed out.)

The terms “environmental” and “economic” seem at odds with each other in a modern context as the country continues to experience the effects of a fiscal downturn and many proposed sustainable methods have proved both costly and inefficient. The development of new technology that is successful on both levels can create the opportunity for economic growth and recovery without degrading the environment and threatening human health. However, I was inspired by the optimistic tone and the reassurance that we have the ability to reconcile these two values, that with persistence and ingenuity we can redefine a sustainable future and employ our creativity to “become the leaders we have been waiting for.”

About the Author: Hillary Kett is a student contractor with the Communications team in the Office of Research and Development.

Science Wednesday: Sustainability on Steroids

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

Have you heard about geoengineering? It has been around as a concept for over a decade, but has come into the forefront recently because of a Royal Society report last fall and a new book. It is offered as a solution to global climate change, one of the biggest sustainability issues.

The idea behind geoengineering is that planet earth came to its present state because humans engineered natural systems on a large scale. For example, humans changed the flow of rivers. We straightened them, dammed them, diverted them, reversed them. Humans changed the landscape: cut down forests, plowed the soil, blew up hills and mountains. Humans changed the atmosphere. We sent toxic wastes skyward, spewed out CO2 from combustion, filled the skies with particles.

In short, we engineered the planet on a very large scale.

Unfortunately, these projects had unintended consequences such as poor water quality or decreased quantity, land erosion and loss of nutrients in the soil, global climate change. So, a kind of large-scale reverse engineering might be in order to fix these problems.

In particular, geoengineering has been offered as a possible way to reverse the effects of climate change. For example, geoengineers have suggested :

  • fertilizing the ocean to increase the growth of algae which take up CO2 and give off oxygen as they photosynthesize
  • putting huge mirrors into orbit to reflect back some of the warming sunlight
  • seeding the clouds so it would rain when and where wanted
  • pumping CO2 deep into the earth or ocean

All this sounds like science fiction, but it is proposed by perfectly objective scientists/engineers. The concern is that someone will come along and say let’s “just do it.” There may or may not be dire consequences from “just doing it.” This is where science comes in.

Barbara KarnBecause of the importance and scale of these issues, we need to gather the knowledge to make intelligent decisions. Ignorance is not bliss and must be erased in the light of facts.
In the case of geoengineering, we must neither avoid research in this area just because it seems like a science fiction solution to our climate problem, nor should we embrace it as a quick fix and neglect the long term action of lowering and controlling emissions. Just like steroids’ quick fix, these solutions may have dire consequences.

About the Author: Dr. Barbara Karn is a scientist in EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research and a regular Science Wednesday contributor.

Science Wednesday: Sustainability Is Our True North

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

A week ago at the Keck Center of the National Academies,  I heard Paul Anastas, EPA’s Assistant Administrator for the Office of Research and Development, speak about sustainability. He said, “sustainability is our true north.”

That started my thinking about both sustainability and true north.

I work with sustainability (and nanotechnology) most of the time and am comfortable with the 1987 Brundtland commission’s statement: “Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” But what does this have to do with true north? …and is there an “un-true” north?

If you are a sailor or wilderness hiker, you are aware that your compass does not point to “true” north, but rather is influenced by the magnetism surrounding the earth (remember the big iron core from 9th grade geology?). Compasses follow magnets. As the core shifts (planet earth and its core materials are moving, after all), the poles of the earth’s magnet shift, and the compasses follow. We read a magnetic north, not true north, on these compasses.

To get to true north from a compass reading, it depends on where you use it and when you read it. Today in Washington DC, we subtract about 10.5 degrees from the compass reading. This means that if the magnetic compass in DC says I am heading due north, and I want to vacation on Lake Ontario, I might end up staying on Lake Erie instead if I don’t make the proper corrections to my compass. Using the magnetic compass, we have to make these corrections as we travel. If we don’t, the longer we travel, the further off course we get. Of course, in these days of GPS, this scenario is highly unlikely.

For sustainability, we need to set a course for the true north that allows humans to live a healthy life while supporting our ecosystems and our social and economic activities without compromising future generations. We need to correct our compasses as we move toward sustainability and not be thrown off course by a magnetic pull of short term goals that cause shortages and suffering in the long term. …and the sooner we head for true north, the better our course will be.

About the Author: Dr. Barbara Karn is a scientist in EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research and a regular Science Wednesday contributor.

Science Wednesday: Sustainability Through the Eyes of a Chemist

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

As a research chemist at EPA for more than ten years, I have had the opportunity to be  at the forefront of developing novel technologies to achieve the Agency’s mission—to protect human health and safeguard the natural environment. I have also had the good fortune that this period has also marked the burgeoning of Green Chemistry.

There is no doubt that within the past 10+ years the field of chemistry has exploded with the integration of philosophies associated with Green Chemistry.  Very simply, one can envision and justifiably define Green Chemistry as “preventing pollution at the
molecular level.”

It follows, that if the pollution is not created in the first place, there is no need for clean-up and remediation technologies. The research undertaken where I work, the National Risk Management Research Laboratory in Cincinnati, Ohio has focused on applying the principles of Green Chemistry and merging them with the principles of chemical engineering.

The overall goal is to develop novel methodologies to produce organic chemicals with a minimized environmental footprint.  Our research has demonstrated that a researcher can use chemistry to influence process design as well as using novel reactors to design new chemical routes for organic synthesis.

As my research career in the area of Green Chemistry continues to grow, I feel that in order to move this field even further, I have to expand on this integration of chemistry and chemical engineering.

I believe that if one is take full advantages of the philosophies of Green Chemistry, researchers must begin to think holistically, and think past the “chemistry bench.” If you look at all the opportunities that exist for process improvements, one must not just be limited to the chemistry, but now must be looking at the plant and not just the bench.

This is where I developed the term Sustainable Chemistry.

image of the authorAbout the author: EPA research chemist Michael A. Gonzalez, Ph.D, has served as a primary investigator for Green Chemistry and Engineering projects. His focuses on the development of sustainable chemical processes, incorporating a holistic view of on-going chemistry and processing. He is currently the Branch Chief for the Systems Analysis Branch.