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 LAST WORD

BY BARRIE W. JACKSON

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Discussion of the environment can be fraught with bias. Students must learn how to assess information and weigh risks.


Colleges and universities are introducing more and more programs dealing with threats to the global environment. Since engineers in many respects are stewards of the environment, such courses are particularly appropriate in engineering education. Yet the way environmental problems are widely portrayed, by the media and even some academics, puts one in mind of the title of the 1841 book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. As a result, students have fallen prey to misconceptions. For instance, while a scientific consensus exists that the world is getting warmer, there is not a consensus that mankind is wholly to blame for climate change. Yet many students seem to believe there is one.

Likewise, “green engineering” is not a new concept. The health, not only of employees within manufacturing units, but also of neighboring communities and consumers has been of significant concern for many years. Enormous strides have been made in energy efficiency and process safety management in recent decades.

We owe it to our students to teach them how to avoid delusions, to stand apart from the crowd and to make critical assessments on their own. As practicing professional engineers, they will be required to evaluate options and make choices based on the best information available. But for students to assess issues critically, they must first learn to seek out the full story. This means obtaining far more information than appears in the media, which cannot be expected to present a comprehensive picture. It also means not accepting at face value all they’re told by professors or guest lecturers, who may be conveying their own biases.

As they acquire the information they need, students must learn how to weigh risks and make sound judgments. In my particular field, chemical engineering, it is recognized that there is simply no situation that is completely risk free.

One way students can learn to acquire necessary information is to carry out a lifecycle analysis of a current topical issue so that they can make a decision based on their own observations, rather than on the opinions of others.

At Queen’s University and the University of Guelph, both located in Ontario, Canada, we propose to do just that next year by carrying out a life-cycle analysis of the manufacture of an increasingly popular fuel — biodiesel — from rapeseed oil. It is hoped that Guelph will provide the agricultural data, such as acreage required, as well as the amount of water, fertilizer and diesel fuel needed for tilling, seeding, harvest and shipment to the mill where the oil will be extracted. With the issue of water use becoming important, it will be monitored closely as part of the exercise.

At Queen’s, two projects will run in parallel: One will involve TEAM (Technology Engineering and Management) collaboration of students from engineering, law, commerce and other disciplines that can make a worthwhile contribution. The TEAM will monitor the cost of extraction of the oil and develop a process design for combining the rapeseed oil with methanol to produce biodiesel, a process called transesterification. In the second project, development of a sound process design will be aided by a fourth-year student who, by means of a bench-scale transesterification unit, will obtain critical reaction kinetic data.

All the data from both Guelph and Queen’s ventures will be collated into an overall environmental and economic assessment of biodiesel fuels.

A life-cycle analysis provides project management experience and an understanding of the steps required to reach conclusions.

This is obviously an ambitious program, far removed from a traditional lecture course, which will require many hours of intense effort to plan and guide. But we expect the results to be worth the effort, and that students will gain important project management experience. Over the years we have observed some remarkably proficient project managers among our TEAM students.

More importantly, students will take away from this exercise an appreciation of how a life cycle analysis is performed and an understanding of the disciplined series of steps needed to reach their own conclusions about the merits — or drawbacks — of biodiesel fuels. With this understanding, they will be better equipped to confront existing and future environmental problems.

Barrie W. Jackson, retired from Shell Canada, is an adjunct associate professor in the chemical engineering department of Queen’s College.

 

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