Introduction to Sustainable Development for Engineering and Built Environment Professionals
Unit 1 - A New Perspective
Lecture 4: Emerging Technologal Innovations
provide some examples of technological innovations
that are beginning to drive what we have referred
to as ‘the next industrial revolution’
for sustainable development. To also note the importance
of existing innovations that may have the potential
to be dramatically transformed.
K. and Smith, M. (2005) The Natural Advantage
of Nations: Business Opportunities, Innovation and
Governance in the 21st Century, Earthscan,
1: 'Significant potential for resource productivity
improvements (including Table 1.1), Creating competitive
advantage of the firm.' (2.5 pages), pp 13-16.
13: 'National Systems of Innovation', Table 13.1
(1.5 pages),pp 256-257.
17: 'Profitable Greenhouse Solutions', Table 17.2
(4 pages), pp 331-334.
20: 'Water: Nature's Gold', Table 20.1 (1 page),
1. In the case of modern society, two critical global
needs are: 1) a dramatic improvement in resource
productivity and, 2) a reduction in environmental
impacts – or indeed (ideally) a net improvement
in environmental conditions. We will require radical
gains in resource productivity and energy efficiency,
much larger than the incremental gains currently
achieved in most day to day built environment and
2. Science and engineering innovations that could
assist in moving toward a more sustainable society
may be just around the corner – or are here
already! Some examples include optoelectronics,
fuel cell technology, materials science, nanotechnology
3. It is important for the professions to give careful
consideration to the benefits and disadvantages
of emerging innovations. Although innovations are
intended to provide benefit, there are numerous
historical examples of unsuccessful and harmful
consequences. Some technologies - which on their
own were previously deemed economically unfeasible
or not useful - have the potential to be combined
with other technologies to provide products and
services with radical resource productivity improvements.
4. There are numerous examples of governments, businesses
and communities around the world who have already
made the decision to address these needs (or who
have ‘caught the wave’) and who are
enjoying the successes that follow. A well known
international example is that of Interface Carpets.
Ray Anderson, engineer, CEO and Chair of Interface
carpets, said that realising the unsustainable practices
performed by his company ‘was like a spear
in my chest’, while reading Paul Hawken's
The Ecology of Commerce. This resulted in Ray
completely changing the way his company does business,
making Interface one of the most recognised sustainability-oriented
companies in the world.
The publication The Natural Advantage of Nations
documents many other such case studies.
5. Examples where new and exciting techniques and
technologies are leading to products and services
with resource productivity improvements include:
moves are being made to design the optoelectronic
computer, designed to run on particles of light
(photons), as opposed to the traditional electronics.
About the size of a Frisbee, the optoelectronic
computer concept is extremely fast (comparable
to today’s fastest supercomputers), generates
much less waste heat, and is more compact than
the current electronic version.
science: Two engineers from University
College London have devised a method of customising
the properties of a three dimensional material
structure to dramatically improve the efficiency
of materials usage and ultra-lighting –
making, for example, aircraft wings that are
dense and strong close to the fuselage while
making the tip of the wing light and flexible.
This method uses the culmination of existing
technologies including finite element analysis,
genetic algorithms and rapid prototyping technologies.
Emerging Technologies as part of the Sixth
Wave of Innovation
The enabling technologies introduced above are further
Productivity or Eco-Efficiency: DuPont’s
Chairman & CEO Chad Halliday stated in March
2006 that, ‘In working to reduce greenhouse
gas emissions, we achieved real benefits, including
more than $2 billion in avoided costs due to
energy conservation activities.’
Dow Chemicals has reduced its energy consumption
per unit of production by 21 percent since 1994,
saving itself $3 billion in the process. BASF
has cut its annual costs at one site alone by
€500 million through improved efficiency.
Whole System Design: Whole
system optimisation for a paper manufacturing
plant found that the plant could be a net generator
of electricity. The key trick is the gasification
of the black liquor and biomass, releasing significant
energy and heat through which to power co-generation,
creating a surplus of electricity for the plant.
But making this change to the system creates
other changes which also need to be optimised.
K. Maunsbach et al optimised the whole system
to demonstrate that paper and pulp plants can
be designed or re-designed to produce a net
surplus of power.
Biomimicry: Mick Pearce is
world famous for the way he mimics in building
designs termite mounds in order to maintain
pleasant temperatures (26 C), even in extreme
conditions. As Mick Pearce describes it, ‘Termites
encapsulate an environment fit for themselves
and for the fungi which they cultivate. They
are masters of air-conditioning without added
power to the buildings they make.’
Green Chemistry and Engineering:
Sydney-based Peter Steinberg and his colleague
Staffan Kjelleberg have found a way to prevent
bacterial build up or biofilms (bacterial colonies)
on boats or any surface in water, using an environmentally
benign approach with no heavy metals or harmful
chemicals. They discovered a sea plant that
emits a molecule to dissuade bacteria from colonising
on its surface, effectively jamming the bacteria's
communication networks. Using this insight,
they mimicked the chemical and have subsequently
invented an environmentally friendly anti-fouling
substance that can be used on surfaces in hospitals,
contact lenses and paints to reduce slimy build-ups
in an environmentally benign manner.
Industrial Ecology: The Kwinana
Industrial Area of Western Australia is one
of the early examples of industrial ecology.
The region is home to an alumina nickel and
an oil refinery, a coal and gasfied power station,
a cement plant, three major industrial chemicals
plants, a pigment plant, and a number of small
to medium sized operators. A number of synergies
have been realised so far – within the
bauxite residue disposal areas; conversion of
weak hydrochloric acid from pigment production
into ammonium chloride for synthetic rutile
production; and conversion of waste hydrogen
and carbon dioxide into commercial gases. In
total, there are 106 existing resource interactions
Renewable Energy: Professor
Andrew Blakers and Dr Klaus Weber’s innovation
has created more efficient solar cells while
cutting the costs by 75 percent. Their work
at the Australian National University’s
Centre of Sustainable Energy Systems has stunned
the industry with a simple but brilliant breakthrough.
They slice the silicon wafers which convert
sunshine into electricity and turn the slices
side-on to the sun. This increases the surface
area and reduces the amount of silicon needed,
reducing the amount of expensive silicon needed
by 90 percent.
Green Nanotechnology: As Janine Benyus
explains in her book Biomimicry, James
Guillet of the University of Toronto is experimenting
with the creation of specific chains and clusters
of molecules designed to harness light and focus
its energy. Guillet is experimenting with these
molecular light harvesters to target the focused
energy to break and/or create bonds between
and within molecules floating in water, effectively
doing ‘chemistry in water’.
Lovins, A.B., Datta, E.K., Feiler, T., Rabago, K.R.,
Swisher, J.N., Lehmann, A. and Wicker, K. (2002)
Small is Profitable: the hidden economic benefits
of making electrical resources the right size,
Rocky Mountain Institute, Snowmass, Colorado.
- National Academy of Engineering (2002) Engineering
and Environmental Challenges: Technical Symposium
on Earth Systems Engineering, NAE. Available
Accessed 7 June 2006.
Anderson , R. (1999) Mid-Course Correction: Toward
a Sustainable Enterprise : The Interface Model ,
Chelsea Green Publishers, White River Junction, VT.
benefits’, Economist.com e-article, 10 March
2005. Available at www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=3714003.
Accessed 7 June 2006. (Back)
Maunsbach K., Isaksson A., Yan J. and Svedberg G.,
and Eidensten L., Integration of Advanced Gas Turbines
in Pulp and Paper Mills for Increased Power Generation,
J. of Eng. for Gas Turbines and Power, Vol.
123, pp 734-740, 2001. (Back)
Natural Edge Project Engineering Sustainable Solutions
Program is supported by the Australian National Commission
for UNESCO through the International Relations Grants
Program of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.