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Engineering and the Environment

Extracts from Rubin, Edward S., Introduction to Engineering and the Environment, McGraw-Hill, NY, 1 st Edition, 2001, Chapter 1.


The environment is the aggregate of surrounding things, conditions or influences, especially as affecting the existence or development of someone or something. The term environment will generally refer to the physical environment that surrounds us. This includes the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the lands, oceans, rivers and forests that cover the earth. To an increasing extent it also includes the buildings, highways and modern infrastructure of the urban settings in which a growing proportion of the world’s population resides. The state of this physical environment directly and indirectly affects the viability of all living things on the planet – the people, plants, birds, fish and other animals.


At the most basic level, human activity influences the environment through demands for food and shelter. Other living plants and animals will be killed or harvested for food, and some natural resources, such as trees, will be used to build structures and provide energy for shelter, cooking and warmth. As human populations increase, more and more land is altered to provide settlements and to support activities such as agriculture, industrial processes and transportation systems. And as people become more affluent, their demand on the earth’s resources grows far beyond the basic needs for survival.

In addition to altering the landscape, diverse human activities give rise to various types of waste emissions discarded to the environment, e.g. air pollutants from factories and automobiles, water contaminants from manufacturing processes, solid wastes from household and municipal activities, and pesticides used in agriculture.

Many of the wastes or pollutants discharged to the environment are subsequently transported and chemically or biologically transformed over time and distance, e.g. gaseous sulphur dioxide emitted from the tall chimneys of coal fired power stations is partially converted to fine sulphate particles leading to acid rain which can damage lakes and forests large distances away.

In general, our greatest concern is over environmental changes that my harm us or affect our welfare. Many air pollutants and water contaminants entering the environment as by products of modern technology are widely recognised sources of human illness and ecological damage. More subtle or indirect impacts, such as the effect of long term global warming from emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases, are less clearly defined at the moment but raise new concerns about the longer-term effects of energy use and industrial activities.

Some environmental changes that are beneficial in the short run may have adverse consequences later on, e.g. clearing wooded land to provide space for more production can also be seen as destructive of natural habitat whose intrinsic value affects our long-term welfare and survival.

Public Policy

In democratic societies, the political process is how decisions are made as to whether actual or potential changes in the environment are of sufficient concern to adopt policies (i.e. laws, standards and regulations) to prevent, alter or reverse these changes. Some notion of the damages or risks that will be avoided by taking action is one essential element of the decision making process. A host of other factors also influence community and national decisions about environmental policies, e.g. culture, societal values and economics.

Priorities and preferences for environmental protection often vary with community and country. A nation struggling to provide its citizens with the basic necessities of life is unlikely to be as worried about wilderness preservation as a wealthy nation. Nonetheless, over time societies tend to address environmental problems in an order roughly equivalent to the relative risks they pose, perhaps starting with basic health issues like water quality and sanitation, and broadening to other issues of health and environmental quality.

Environmental policies also are often based on concepts of fairness, or equity, such as the idea that all citizens have a right to breathe clean air, or ethic of the environmental protection of endangered species. Because environmental policy often has significant economic implications, it is almost always influenced by private interests as well as the public interest.

At all stages in the policy development process, one important thing is to look for policies whose benefits clearly outweigh the costs of the measures taken. While economic cost/benefit analysis can be employed to evaluate the merits of proposed policy measures, putting a monetary value on expected environmental and health benefits can be difficult. A less controversial method is to identify measures that are lowest in cost.

If environmental protection measures are adopted, their influence might be felt in a number of ways, e.g. altering human behaviour by forbidding certain types of activities such as dumping of wastes or drilling in pristine areas. Other measures might require the use or development of new technology to abate harmful emissions to the environment, e.g. catalytic converters to reduce air pollution and renewable energies to generate electricity.

Environmental policies thus shape the development of technology in directions that reflect the goals and preferences of society.


Engineers are primarily involved in problems related to technology development and deployment. These include the actions of designing, developing and building consumer products as well as the manufacturing processes, industrial technology and transportation infrastructure needed to extract, transport and refine raw materials, fabricate products and distribute goods and services. In order to predict the consequences of technology deployment, engineers are also involved in the study of how pollutants are transported and transformed in the environment. Thus, in the broadest sense, engineers are concerned with – and responsible for - a wide range of activities that directly or indirectly contribute to environmental change, particularly changes associated with land use (including depletion of natural resources) and change induced by emissions or residues from products and industrial processes.

or residues fr om products and industrial processes. Power systems are at the heart of industrial

Power systems are at the heart of industrial society. Their design and operation directly determines how much air pollution, water pollution and solid wastes are produced and released to the environment. Major industries which use bulk electrical energy for their processes, such as steel mills, aluminium smelters and pulp and paper mills, also add to these. In addition, all of the consumer products we use and eventually discard are a result of engineering design decisions that impact on the environment. Thus, the way engineers design products and processes plays a big role in creating as well as solving environmental problems.

The environmental impact of land (earth, sea and sky) use decisions is a broader societal issue that involves not only engineers, but a host of other professional and political interests as well. Thus, decisions about deploying technology, i.e. whether to use it, where to put it or how many to deploy – typically extend beyond the realm of engineering practice. Often those decisions fall in the domains of city and regional planners, government regulatory agencies, and other groups responsible for review and approval of land use proposals from developers, landowners, corporations and others. Thus, although engineers frequently play a central role in formulating recommendations with respect to land use, such as where to build a dam, the process

of arriving at a final decision transcends engineering. Throughout this process, however, engineers are intimately involved in defining, collecting and interpreting the data needed to access the environmental implications of major land use decisions.


Engineers are responsible for designing and manufacturing products. The philosophies of green design, pollution prevention and industrial ecology are changing the way engineers do their jobs. Environmental law has changed such that increasingly you must take back all of your discarded products and be responsible for its environmentally safe disposal. This affects how you design and build your product. Computers are a good example where disposal laws have changed and these have lead to significant changes in product design, manufacturing processes and shipping arrangements. Power system design is subject to the same considerations.

Sources of Environmental Impacts

A unique characteristic of engineers is that they build things and make stuff that

serves society.

There are three sources of environmental impacts associated with

doing this.

Materials Selection

Anything that engineers design and build has to be made out of something. The choice of that something will directly affect the environment as it comes from somewhere and eventually it all tracks back to the environment. The quantities needed are also important variables that engineers can influence. When selecting materials, the key questions are: can alternative materials be used that are environmentally preferable? and can less material be used without compromising function or reliability?

Manufacturing Processes

This refers to the methods that engineers devise to turn raw materials into finished materials and products. This involves mining, refining, transport, transformation and assembly into final products. Every step along this chain of activities releases gaseous, liquid or solid waste materials to the environment. Historically, environmental engineering involved developing additional technology and methods for cleaning up the problems created by primary manufacturing and processing technologies. An alternative goal is to design primary processes that minimise the production of pollutants in the first place.

Energy Use

This source of environmental impacts is perhaps the most pervasive and most important of any that engineers deal with. Energy is vital for life and for an economy, and the quantities and types of energy that a society uses directly affect environmental quality.

Energy use encompasses everything from heating and cooling homes and buildings, electricity to run appliances and fuels that power transport systems. Manufacturing processes all require energy to perform tasks. Most of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas. When these fuels are burned or converted to electricity, the environment is affected. Nuclear power leaves a different kind of legacy. Renewable energy sources such as hydro, solar, wind and biomass are not without their adverse environmental consequences.

A good rule of thumb is that any engineering improvement that reduces the energy

required for a particular service (increases efficiency) will be beneficial for the environment. Switching from one energy form to another (substitution) is a lot trickier. The environmental consequences may involve trade-offs that are difficult to evaluate.

A Life Cycle Perspective

An environmental life cycle assessment provides the big picture of how engineering

decisions in any particular area affect the environment. In the stages involved in building and creating goods to serve society, environmental impacts occur as a result

of materials consumption and transformation, and the use of energy.

consumption and transformation, and the use of energy. All stages of a product’s life cycle must

All stages of a product’s life cycle must be considered in finding ways to reduce

environmental impacts. Environmental impacts can be reduced by engineering designs that change the type and/or amount of materials used in a product; by creating cleaner and more efficient extraction and manufacturing processes; reducing the amount of energy needed to use a product, and by improving the recovery and reuse

of materials and energy at the end of the product life.

Industrial Ecology and Sustainable Development

Industrial ecology is the means by which humanity can deliberately and rationally approach and maintain a desirable carrying capacity, given continued economic, cultural and technological evolution. This requires that an industrial system be viewed not in isolation from its surrounding systems but in concert with them. It is a systems view in which optimisation of resources, energy and capital, of the total

materials cycle from virgin material, to finished material, to component, to product, to obsolete product and to ultimate disposal, is sought.

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The application of industrial ecology principles offers a means by which sustainable development can be approached and maintained. In more practical terms, industrial ecology is based on the concept that natural systems tend to recirculate and reuse materials, thus eliminating or minimising the production of wastes and the use of energy. Hence industrial ecology should include:

circulating and reusing material flows within a system

reducing the amount of materials used in products to achieve a particular function

protecting living organisms by minimising or eliminating the flow of harmful substances

minimising the use of energy and the flow of waste heat back to the environment


Engineering design and analysis invariably involve the application of quantitative methods based on fundamental principles and laws. These fundamentals also apply to the study of environmental impacts and the concepts of green design and industrial ecology.

Conservation of Mass

The law of mass conservation states that mass can be neither created nor destroyed. The rate of mass creation is zero.

created nor destroyed. The rate of mass creation is zero. Mass can flow into and out

Mass can flow into and out of a system via any number of streams. Mass can also be stored (accumulate) or removed from storage, so long as the total mass within the system remains constant.

Total mass flow rate in = Total mass flow rate out + Change in mass stored

At steady state, there is no change in the mass storage term and hence

Total mass flow rate in = Total mass flow rate out

Often in engineering problems, a mass (or mass flow rate) is calculated from the properties of matter (such as the density of a material) and other variables (volume).

m = ρV

This includes chemical reactions, where a reaction equation expresses mass conservation through the mass of each chemical element. Many environmental pollutants are the product of chemical reactions. One of the most pervasive and important types of chemical reaction is the combustion of fuels, especially coal or natural gas burned at electric power stations. Because most of the world’s energy is produced by fuel consumption, tracking the flow of energy is another important element of environmental analysis.

Conservation of Energy

Analogous to the law of mass conservation, energy cannot be created or destroyed. The rate of energy creation is zero. This is known as the 1 st Law of Thermodynamics.

zero. This is known as the 1 s t Law of Thermodynamics. Total energy flow rate

Total energy flow rate in = Total energy flow rate out + Change in energy stored

At steady state, there is no change in the mass storage term and hence

Total energy flow rate in = Total energy flow rate out

Energy flows are directly coupled to mass flows in many types of environmental problems, because energy is stored in mass in a variety of ways, e.g. kinetic or potential. Hence, fulfilling requirements for energy usually requires flows of mass, often with environmental consequences.

Example: An electric power station generates 30 GWh of useful energy in a year by burning a fossil fuel. The total fuel energy input to the station is 100 GWh (conversion efficiency is 30%). Hence the waste heat released into the environment is 100-30 = 70 GWh, roughly twice the amount of useful energy. An industrial ecology approach would seek ways to improve the power station design so as to reduce or utilise the waste heat released to the environment.