Give engineers more chance to solve sustainability challenges

Krisztina Bordacs, Lead Sustainability Consultant at MWH says that to speed up solutions to our many and varied global ‘sustainability’ challenges, we need to apply engineering principles and give engineers a bigger role 

Today we face a daunting amount of news about environmental concerns, resource management, potential solutions for the future, and financial and social considerations.  To gain a common understanding of the huge environmental issues which need to be solved we have to break these challenges down into manageable pieces and apply solid engineering processes to achieve the results we need globally and locally. 

There are well established scientific and engineering concepts which could be used to better understand the global imbalance and be easily applied to reduce our ‘big’ problems down to manageable size.  This would allow them to be analysed individually and the best solutions to be developed. These approaches would also enable decisions to be made with the whole ecosystem in mind, and lead to nexus level decisions. This level is required when the need and human right to food, water and energy have to be balanced for human civilization and the environment. 

Let’s look at phosphorous removal as an example. The two often used solutions are precipitation chemistry or for larger scale systems by biological phosphorous removal.  Removal has to address Struvite precipitation because it tends to create scaling pipes but it is also a readily useable fertilizer which could counter the looming phosphorous fertilizer crisis. Using chemistry and biology knowledge combined with engineering technology could provide a nexus level solution to a local problem. This process is already being used commercially for fertilizer production.

The application of microbiology and in particular the multitasking renewable – biomass is also a good example. Generated naturally this is a never ending source for food.  It has been applied by bioengineering processes for centuries and is now being applied to waste treatment in the form of biological waste water treatment and energy generation. The re-thinking of waste water treatment processes to force the biomass to consume itself for regeneration accomplishes the typical two stage process (waste water treatment followed by sludge treatment) in just one.  The outcome is clean water, energy released from the biomass and the big bonus –phosphorous fertilizer. This is another success story as these systems have now been commercially applied in the UK and USA.

So although I’m all for people doing their eco-bit, to make a real difference, we need science and engineering experts to break down major issues into smaller ‘problems’ and apply proven engineering principals (the typical approach used by engineering companies) to help us reach global solutions, more quickly and more sustainably.  

Krisztina Bordacs is a Chartered Chemical Engineer with over 25 years of multi-sector experience within the fields of environmental management and sustainability in the UK, USA and across the world. MWH, now part of Stantec