April 13-19, 2014 is National Environmental Education Week, and throughout April, students, educators and others around the country are taking part in learning focused on how the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, specifically engineering, can be used to solve some of today’s biggest environmental problems, leading to sustainable solutions for a healthier planet and healthier people.
So, how is engineering helping to solve some of our biggest environmental challenges?
Biomimicry: Whale Fins and Wind Turbines
Many of the environmental problems that engineers are working to solve already have hints to solutions in the natural world. Using the complex sciences of fluid dynamics and biomechanics, researchers discovered that the bumps on the front edge of humpback whale fins (called tubercles) increase lift and reduce drag for maximum efficiency as the whales move through the water. Now, a company called WhalePower is applying this bumpy-edged design to wind turbines and fans to increase efficiency – researchers have found that adding tubercles to wind turbine blades increases efficiency by 20 percent.
Designing Green Buildings: Seattle’s Bullitt Center
One of the significant challenges engineers are constantly working to improve is the sustainable use of resources. Seattle’s Bullitt Center is one of the greenest commercial buildings in the world. The building is powered by 575 solar panels and uses extremely low-flow toilets and composting toilets reduce water waste. Greywater from sinks and showers is cleaned in a constructed wetland, where plants help to remove nutrients and pollutants – the clean water eventually recharges the aquifer below. Rainwater is collected on the roof and used throughout the building. These are just a few of the features that make the Bullitt Center an innovative space to learn about green building technology.
Capturing Carbon: Artificial Trees
Researchers are developing a device called an air extractor that removes carbon dioxide from the air. The device is playfully referred to as an “artificial tree.” Sodium carbonate on the plastic “leaves” pulls carbon dioxide from the air and converts it to baking soda! The artificial “leaves” remove about one ton of carbon dioxide from the air per day. This new technology could be in large-scale use in 10-20 years.
You may not be able to install a wind turbine or an artificial tree on your property, but there are still ways you can put innovative engineering practices to use at home.
Build your own rain barrel. Use these instructions to construct a rain barrel that will capture rain water from your roof – you can use this water for gardening or washing cars and windows. (Be sure to check local regulations before installing a rain barrel, as some communities prohibit them.)
Build a rain garden. Much like the Bullitt Center’s constructed wetland, rain gardens are shallow depressions with water-tolerant plants that capture rain water and filter out pollutants before they reach our rivers, streams and aquifers. These resources will help you create a rain garden that suits your property. There’s even an app to help you get started!
Add efficient appliances to your home. Check out EPA’s WaterSense program to find low-flow toilets, faucets, showerheads and other appliances that use innovative manufacturing to save water (and money) without compromising performance.
Learn more environmental problem solving in the Engineering & Our Planet infographic.
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. IEEE Spectrum. “ Biology Inspires Better Wind Power.” September 23, 2013
Biomimicry Institute. “Ask Nature: Flippers Provide Lift, Reduce Drag: Humpback Whale” ; Scientific American.
"Bumpy Whale Fins Outperform Smooth Turbines.” July 8, 2008
Bullitt Center, “Building Features,”
The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media, “Artificial Trees as Carbon Capture Alternative to Geoengineering,”