Engineering develops novel products and technologies that play a central role in enhancing human well-being. However, engineering can also reduce human well-being by unintentionally contributing to the degradation of ecosystems that are essential for sustaining our well-being. Examples of such unintended harm to which engineering is a contributor include depletion of stratospheric ozone due to chlorofluorocarbon compounds, harmful algal blooms due to runoff of artificial fertilizers, and climate change due to fossil fuel use. This presents engineers with a dilemma: how do we ensure that our products, processes, and other activities continue to maintain our well-being without degrading the very ecosystems that are essential for sustaining it. Our research is motivated by the urgent need to address this grand challenge.
1]For meeting this challenge, engineering solutions need to be economically feasible, socially desirable, and ecologically viable. In addition, the solutions should not simply shift problems outside the system boundary. For example, electric cars may seem to be clean due to a lack of tailpipe emissions. However, the emissions may shift outside the automotive boundary if the electricity used to power the car is generated from dirty fuels. Then, the emissions may simply shift from the car’s tailpipe to the power plant’s chimney. Such shifting of impacts can occur across space, time, flows and disciplines, and is a root cause of unintended harm.[
To avoid such shifts, engineering design and operation must adopt a systems or holistic view that considers scales from atoms to the biosphere, as depicted in the adjacent figure. The resulting methods must also account for the interaction between engineering, ecology, sociology, and economics: something that no traditional discipline is capable of doing. The discipline of Sustainable Engineering has emerged to meet this challenge.
As shown in the figure, engineering science is reductionist in nature. It focuses on phenomena from atomic to equipment scales. Systems engineering considers a larger system boundary to account for the interaction between equipment, flowsheet, supply chain, and enterprise. Industrial ecology expands the boundary beyond the enterprise to the life cycle and the economy. Systems ecology and ecological engineering approach sustainability from the ecosystems perspective. Sustainable engineering brings all of these perspectives together.
As shown in the figure, our work considers systems from atomic to planetary scales to develop engineering solutions for sustainability. Such solutions can truly “meet the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” For meeting this ambitious goal, our current work is addressing three key challenges.
- Engineering and Ecosystems. For sustainability, engineering must respect nature's limits. How do we account for the role of ecological systems in supporting industrial and other human activities? How do we design mutually beneficial or synergistic relationships between industrial activities and ecosystems? Will such designs be more sustainable and resilient than conventional designs?
- Eco-mimicry. Nature is able to sustain itself, so it seems that learning from and mimicking it can be a path toward sustainability of human activities. How do we develop products and process systems that are circular in nature so that, like mature ecological systems, they produce little or no waste? What will be the economic, environmental, and social trade-offs in developing a circular economy? How can we quantify and understand circularity?
- Engineering and Economics. The impact of engineering products depends on the behavior of markets and consumers. How do we account for the role of markets and human behavior in developing technological products and processes? Which economic policies or behavioral incentives will be effective for realizing the full benefits of efficient technologies, ecosystems, and eco-mimicry?
We address these questions to design and operate diverse activities such as chemical plants and surrounding landscapes; agro-ecological systems for production of food and biomass; residential and urban systems; and plastic products for a sustainable and circular economy. Most projects involve research across disciplines such as environmental economics, environmental science, ecology, and business management; use of advanced computational approaches including optimization, applied statistics, and machine learning; and some programming in languages such as Julia, Python, R, GAMS.
More details about specific research projects are available at this link.
 B. R. Bakshi, T. G. Gutowski, and D. P. Sekulic. “Claiming Sustainability: Requirements and Challenges”. ACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering 6.3 (2018), pp. 3632–3639.
 Brundtland Commission, Our common future, Oxford University Press, 1987
For news about Professor Bakshi and members of the Process Systems Engineering Group, please visit our department website.