Mechanical engineers are behind some of the most important environmental technologies, including carbon capture, electric transportation, and energy transportation. However, their environmental impact goes far beyond any specific technology, and all mechanical engineers play an inherent role in helping the environment.
Sustainable engineering is “the process of using resources in a way that does not compromise the environment or deplete what is available for future generations.” It means innovating to better society, solving environmental challenges and adding value to products and systems. It’s the responsibility of all engineers, including mechanical engineers, to adopt sustainable practices.
Now that we know what sustainable engineering is, let’s see it in action. Mechanical engineers across the globe are working to make our air cleaner, energy safer and future brighter, and some of them are doing so in our own backyard. Here’s a look at how mechanical engineers help the environment.
Making Electric Vehicles a Reality
Cars, planes, trains and other gas-guzzlers are the number-one generators of greenhouse gasses in the U.S., but finding an alternative energy source hasn’t been easy.
For electric vehicles to become a viable mode of transport for most commuters, our energy capacity and distribution infrastructure must improve. This also goes for fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), which emit only water but rely on hydrogen that’s almost entirely derived from fossil fuels.
Mechanical engineers in the automotive industry are working to make EVs more affordable and efficient, and when they inevitably succeed, who do you think will be designing the airbags, electric motors, and windshield wipers in these vehicles? Mechanical engineers, of course.
Solving the Problem of Energy Storage
Solar panels and wind turbines may seem like an obvious solution to the problem of greenhouse gas emissions — clean, renewable energy courtesy of mother nature. Unfortunately, there’s a renewable energy bottleneck preventing countries from adopting these technologies: The storage capacity of the U.S. national grid is only 1%.
How do we store the energy created by renewable energy sources? At The University of Texas at Austin, Arumugam Manthiram and his research group are working on a solution.
Recently, the Manthiram Lab had a breakthrough with sodium-sulfur batteries. Sodium and sulfur are more abundant and less harmful for the environment than the lithium needed for lithium-ion batteries. The problem, however, is shuttling: a process in which sulfur dissolves in the battery’s liquid electrolyte, resulting in the growth of needle-like dendrites that can cause the battery to degrade, short circuit, and, in some cases, explode. Manthiram and his research group created a new electrolyte that prevents shuttling. Next, they plan to apply their breakthrough to electric vehicles and renewable energy technologies, and we wish them the best of luck.
Capturing and Storing Carbon
For about a million years before the industrial revolution, carbon dioxide levels did not exceed 300 parts per million (PPM). In 2021, however, we reached 414.72 ppm. Since nature-based solutions like planting trees can only do so much, we’ll need to tackle the problem of climate change using a diverse set of strategies.
The idea of vacuuming carbon out of the air has been kicked around for decades but is now gaining scientific traction. “Orca,” the first and largest direct air capture plant in the world, captures 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, pumping the gas into underground caverns where it’s mixed with water and turned to stone. Still, that’s equivalent to the annual emission of just 790 cars.
Elon Musk threw down the gauntlet when he took to Twitter, offering a $100 million prize for carbon removal. To his credit, the Musk Foundation and XPRIZE awarded 15 winning teams $1 million each for their efforts in fighting climate change. “The pace and depth of initiatives in carbon removal and other crucial climate solutions has never been greater, but we still need more,” said XPRIZE Vice President of Climate and Environment Marcius Extavour.
Predicting How Fire Behaves
Wildfire plays an essential role in nature, stimulating growth by nourishing soil and burning debris that shades forest floors from sunlight. The process does, however, release stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and homes, lives and wildlife can be destroyed by any uncontrolled blaze.
Led by Ofodike Ezekoye, director of the 100% online Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering program, UT Austin’s Fire Research Group is working to control the wildland fires that are becoming more frequent and intense as a result of climate change. One project involved studying wildland firebrands, which are known to ignite attic spaces in homes, to learn how various insulation materials react when exposed to an ignition source. Although unorthodox, this is just one of the many ways mechanical engineers help the environment.
Engineer a Brighter Future
UT Austin offers two 100% online programs to mechanical engineers who aspire to do more with their talents. Our non-thesis executive MS in mechanical engineering program prepares professionals for leadership roles, while our Mechanical Engineering Controls Graduate Certificate program provides the critical competencies mechanical and petroleum engineers need to succeed.
Led by industry professionals like Professor Ezekoye, our programs will teach you how to use emerging technology to analyze, design and produce products and design processes and, in doing so, make them more efficient and less harmful for the environment. Learn to save time, money and resources while minimizing risk. As a graduate, you’ll have the knowledge, skills and credentials needed for leadership roles in the industry, giving you even more control over how your work impacts the world around you.
Who says environmental engineers get to have all the fun? As a mechanical engineer, you can help the environment by doing what you do best. Check out our 100% online engineering programs and apply to UT Austin when you’re ready to adapt your skills to the needs of the future.