(25c) Green Chemical Engineering Innovation: Turning Design Constraints into a Source of Creativity | AIChE

(25c) Green Chemical Engineering Innovation: Turning Design Constraints into a Source of Creativity


Chen, C. V. H. H. - Presenter, Stanford University
There are many drivers that spur student interest in green and sustainable solutions–from addressing climate change and protecting the environment; to a feeling of moral or ethical duty. However, the conditions that create green innovation in industry differ from those which drive students to study the topic. Though ethical motivation may affect the behaviors of individual companies or people therein, firms are also driven by regulation, their stakeholders, and finances in their push towards sustainability. For chemical engineers, many of these green considerations focus on constraints: moving towards the removal of petrochemical feedstocks, limits on the types of emissions, designing to remove extreme process conditions, etc.

To help students move beyond seeing sustainability as an additional burden to the design process, we have developed a graduate-level green chemical engineering course that focuses on how to use the principles of green chemistry and engineering to create value–attracting students who may be driven by internal motivators, but providing them skills that help them become more valuable to future employers. Students are introduced to Entrepreneurial Mindset (EM) and Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT) as lenses through which to undertake green chemical engineering. We use the KEEN 3C’s framework–curiosity, connections, and creating value–to center potential impact within the course. This is not to strictly encourage students to create their own start-ups or to go into business per se, but instead to help them recognize that they have the ability recognize opportunity and realize impact as they are learning in this course.

Systematic Inventive Thinking was borne out of previous theories that find patterns in innovation, such as TRIZ (Russian abbreviation for Theory of Inventive Problem Solving). SIT reduces the 40 TRIZ patterns into five templates following three core principles. The first of these principles is the Closed World, which states that creativity comes from closure instead of thinking “outside of the box.” For the case of this course, the Closed World are the principles of green chemistry and engineering, and the laws and regulations that bound chemical engineering design. The second is principle is Contradiction, where two demands for a product or process are often connected and are in opposition. SIT provides methods to disentangle contradictory design conditions to allow the contradiction to exist within a product. The last principle is Function Follows Form (FFF), the opposite of Form Follows Function. FFF states that potential, already created solutions are easier to connect to problems that are ill-defined than the reverse (this could be thought of as “solution-probleming” instead of problem solving). Simply put, FFF is asking what value a potential design could create, whether or not it is for the application it was originally intended. Students use these three principles and the five SIT templates–multiplication, division, subtraction, task unification, and attribute dependency–to understand previous green innovations and pitch their own at the end of the course.

This green chemical engineering course was designed to facilitate students to be able to do the following by the end:

  1. Describe the tenets of green chemistry and their pertinence to chemical engineering practice.
  2. Explain how Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT) and green chemistry constrain the design process and can help improve innovation.
  3. Apply green chemistry approaches to the design of a more sustainable product/process.
  4. Evaluate the environmental, business, and social impacts of a chemical product or process.

Although EM was not an explicit learning goal for students in the course, the 3Cs pervade the course design as summarized in Table 1.

Grading participation encourages students to make connections between the course content with a focus on creating value. Forming fixed learning teams for the term (groups of 4-5) was done with the intention that students would be able to foster at least a small community of peers within the class that could form the basis of other professional interactions in the future. These groups were created by the instructors based on some shared affinity of the students (e.g., sector, career aspirations, or research interests), and students completed all group learning activities within these learning teams–both in and out of class. Community Contributions are graded as a means of recognizing individual student curiosity and encouraging them to share their curiosity with the class. These activities included readings that students individually found and shared back with the course through online discussion forums, and through different activities through which students leveraged their own goals for the course to contribute to greater classroom dialogue. Homework provided exercises to help students practice individual skills on way to the final class project. The Green Design Project required students to pitch a green chemical product and/or process, where students needed to draw on the technical content of the course, along with using the SIT templates to create such an innovation. This project ran for the final third of the course and was completed in their learning teams.

At the end of the course, students are asked to report on their learning in relation to the KEEN 3C’s, along with their general learning experience in the course. We are especially interested in how the students’ experience in this course compares to other courses with sustainability themes or content in engineering. As this course is being taught for the first time this term, we do not have current data to report on for these research goals. However, students have already commented on how the course takes a different approach in discussing innovation and engineering design in generally positive ways. SIT has provided students a means through which they can follow to start generating ideas–though students have needed practice in being able to connect these new ideas to potential applications. EM and SIT together (and specifically the Function Follows Form principle) has allowed for there to be greater emphasis on the “why” of innovation over the “what” or technical “how” that is common in engineering education. This prioritizing of whether an idea creates value and for whom prior to diving into the details of making an invention work, which has been positively received by students thus far, is an approach the instructors are interested in carrying over into other engineering courses. This emphasis also distinguishes this course amongst others focused on sustainability and green technology at the engineering school.

By the Fall, we plan to report more formally on the students’ experiences through the aforementioned approaches along with an analysis of student work.