Calling Cross Disciplinary Innovators: The Green Guy Wants You!

In today's world of chemical engineering, great opportunities for collaboration and innovation can arise by meeting scientists from other disciplines, by visiting new conferences, or becoming familiar with new areas of research. You may wonder exactly how these opportunities can come about, without having to undertake rigorous graduate study in multiple fields, as I have. I saw one good example last month when I attended the Society of Environmental Toxicity and Environmental Chemistry's (SETAC) North American 33rd Annual Meeting in Long Beach, California.

At this meeting, Ed Begley, the actor widely known for his environmental views (known as a "green guy"), briefly spoke about the development of his own environmental ideas and positive trends in environmental consciousness in the U.S.

If you were a renewable or sustainable energy engineer in the audience during the talk, you would have recognized the suggestion that renewable energy sources are a solution to energy security challenges that also support improved air quality standards. I noted that some environmental scientists thought that the talk was removed from traditional SETAC speakers, but it was remarkably on target with the theme of the meeting, which was "Catching the Next Wave, Advancing Science through Innovation and Collaboration."


To me, the theme of the talk was to inspire a move beyond a classic clash between traditional energy products-processes and environmentalists. Maybe as a chemical engineer you've experienced such a clash with an environmental issue. The reality, however, is that environment problems utilize engineers and scientists to innovate new solutions - and we all know that chemical engineers are good at addressing challenges!

Ed Begley, Jr. at the 81st Academy Awards

Whether we agree on how stewardship is put into practice, the fact of the matter is that many engineering and science fields bridge gaps that exist between neoclassic production philosophies and fields that are concerned with maximizing the ability and capacity of life to exist unconstrained. What has become increasingly clear to me is that scientific fields that work in the spaces of outcomes resultant of human expansion use different terms to describe and promote mankind's capacity to exist. So maybe we need to be more humble in our respective fields and recognize how all these professions are related.

Industrial change vs personal change

Ed Begely took a look at how he addresses environmental needs in his own life and then turned to the bigger picture. On a personal level, much of Ed's talk cited a central theme of living within a set of bounds. By being fiscally responsible, Ed was able to save money that allowed him to purchase a wind-powered generator that now contributes to his personal wealth. For more about Ed's personal thoughts and philosophies, check out his book. After taking a sustainable engineering class at the Colorado School of Mines, I understand how my various personal "footprints" can be viewed from a global perspective and why it is important to understand concepts such as carrying capacity. To learn more about your personal footprints on the environment, check out this link.

Personal footprint aside, it is well known that industrial practice can contribute to larger environmental challenges on a scales that obliterates an individual's impact. For example, the BP Deep Horizon accident in one estimate released 4.9 million barrels of oil, suggesting that over 1 million barrels are still missing. Using analysis from the US Department of Energy (DOE) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it is estimated that the average American uses 2.8 gallons of oil per day (see this article in Scientific American). With this data, the impact of this industrial event can be related to the daily oil use of over 73 million Americans. This calculus still does not account for the overall environmental impact, which it does not appear anyone will even be able to estimate anytime soon and has been overshadowed by the process of enacting criminal fines (see this article in the New York Times). When was the last time you received credit on a chemical engineering homework or test for not having an answer?

So, living within one's bounds isn't the entire answer. Bigger answers call on entire industries, engineers and public policy to drive changes. Begley cited how air standards in California were improved via fuel-emissions standards that required the implementation of new transportation technologies. He also tipped his hat to both the progress that's been made and to those who are behind much of that change. Among those responsible are the environmentally conscious, which does include chemical engineers.


One of my favorite examples of productive, holistic collaboration is the Grand Policy Experiment, which I recommend you look into! There is great opportunity to work collaboratively towards innovation that address complex environmental topics and allows for closing gaps among "siloed" disciplines. By going the extra mile to seek out and create new opportunities, more widely inclusive benefits may include not only those to your pocket book, but to our society as a whole. Chemical engineering and environmental engineer-scientist skills overlap in many ways.

To further the discussion I ask: How do your personal-professional behaviors and outcomes as a chemical engineer affect how we view dichotomies such as an energy-environment debate? And, how can you positively promote professional collaboration to innovate solutions and new opportunities? Please leave your comments below.

What are your thoughts on promoting cross-disciplinary collaboration and innovation?

Images: Smoggy skyline, asmythie/Rocky A


Robert S's picture

As someone who obtained degrees in Chemical and Environmental engineering I couldn't agree more with the statement that there is a huge overlap. Environmental engineering can be seen as being nearly identical if you rename tanks as lakes, pipes as rivers, etc. In addition to the concepts transferring, I think having an understand of the impact of your designs or work outside your boundary limits makes it better. Unfortunately, I also agree with the headwinds that exist in the workplace. Ask a question about how the waste with be handled in a P&ID review or HAZOP meeting can quickly get you dis-invited for the next one. There are few happy places where inter-disciplinary work current exists. And I have found most of these to be in smaller industries. There is still a lot of low-hanging fruit in large industry. Those with a public face and a PR department are easier to get on board, but the industries that work behind the scenes or with operations in regions with different cost structures are more difficult to reach. In my experience in developing countries with government companies (which many are) is also not very good. When a project is driven by hubris (it needs to be the biggest!) or false economics (I don't care how much it costs as long as I can give people a job.) it is very difficult to use arguments that involve efficiency or quality. This is a great idea, but the work is just starting.

Cory Jensen's picture

Robert, these are all great points. To me they represent challenges that innovative engineering design practice face; 1) interdisciplinary practice, 2) incorporation of larger impact consideration, 3) the freedom to address business as usual practices without fear, 4) access-networking to similar thought put to action, and 4) sustainable development. As a profession, how do we lead in taking action to address these challenges? They are complex issues that involve many perspectives (e.g. technical, social, and governance-based). As an undergraduate, I remember being inspired by 3M that instituted a company policy for employees to dedicate time to innovation. An outcome of some of that inspiration has taken shape during my graduate education as; researching green engineering education principles, by working in the environmental field, development of an innovation design lab, and pushing myself to learn with other cultures. I know there are other programs, people and networks that act similarly. Sharing our experiences is one step we can take to address challenges. Thanks for your comment Robert!

Dennis OBrien's picture

Cory, For many of us working in industry we have issues like scope and schedule that prevent us from going deeper. It is the wrong place to save money, but even if you are willing to spend the money, usually the time allowed is limited. To keep things under control and within budget, issues that are not in the defined scope are excluded from further investigation. MANY projects run out of time and money due to a lack of project discipline. When I was younger I did some of the additional analysis on my own time. I was almost never allowed to ‘run free’ and look at interesting and potentially profitable (for the client) issues. When I reached senior levels in engineering at UOP it really became my job to do this systems review and look for ways to save resources, capital, minimize waste generation, etc. It was a lot of fun. In that role I had a longer view and often changes proposed were going to be implemented several years later on units going into design at that time. This gave the different groups in the review process time to consider objections to the changes and allowed me time to properly address those objections with engineering improvements.

Cory Jensen's picture

Thanks for the comment Dennis! I found the back check process very helpful with improving the quality of an engineering design when I was working for engineering procurement service (EPS) companies as an engineer-in-training & PE. Some of the challenges during this part of my career included working with management that may make drastically different ultimate calls and of course knew more project details that entry level staff. The feast or famine nature of the services industry can also be subject to the quality of employees that are available at the time. I am interested to hear more about aspects of the UOP business model (i.e. technology licensing to support chemical manufacture) that distinguishes UOP from traditional services companies. From a strict ChE perspective, I think you are absolutely right. Many business as usual decisions are subject to temporal-financial constraints. In the future, as the outcomes of 'systems' based national science initiatives emerge, I think we are going to see many more systems approaches to design problems that are going to include more elaborate design tools that younger and younger engineers will have at their disposal, and will be trained to use!