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Noteworthy Endeavors

Green Days

When it comes to engineering, green is in

The building you’ve entered is alive. Its flexible skin converts sunlight to usable energy. Its eyes are windows that clean themselves and darken against glare. The building you’re in knows your needs. Its rooms sense heat and cold, adjusting automatically. Its roof is capped with antenna-like turbines harvesting wind for its own power consumption.

The building you’re in is self-sustaining. It breathes, circulating air like a pair of lungs. The paint on its walls never ages, never cracks. Run-off from rain is channeled, stored, and treated in-house. The building you’re in is smart, but it could be smarter.

Fostering the cause of “smart” or green construction and sustainable water use is the new Mascaro Sustainability Initiative (MSI) at Pitt. This pioneering, multidisciplinary undertaking is advancing the field of sustainable engineering through innovative research, outreach, and education. Sponsored by green contractor John Mascaro, The Heinz Endowments, The Dominion Foundation, and the George Bevier Estate, MSI is jump-starting the engineering of new materials and methods that incorporate sustainability in design.

From his 11th-floor offices in the antithetically ungreen, ’60s-era Benedum Hall on the Pitt campus, Eric Beckman codirects MSI with a mixture of zeal, easygoing intelligence, and humor. “Green is not a state of being, but a process of continual improvement,” says Beckman. “Each succeeding generation should be greener than the next.”

A self-described “half-chemist and half-engineer,” Beckman received a Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2002 for his innovative work with products and processes using carbon dioxide in environmentally safe, efficient, and economical ways. As an example of green engineering in building materials, Beckman cites self-cleaning plate glass. He explains the process whereby solar radiation breaks down dirt that subsequently washes away in rain.

Among the cutting-edge materials now being explored under MSI sponsorship are smarter, maintenance-free coatings you’ll someday use in the house of your dreams. Anna Balazs, Pitt’s Robert Von der Luft Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, and Steven Levitan, the John A. Jurenko Professor of Computer Engineering, are using computer simulations to design self-healing coatings sensitive to defects in their own material. The healing engages a process of “self-assembly” driven by thermodynamic sensing.

One thing your dream house hopefully won’t have is mold. A leading cause of poor indoor air quality, toxic airborne byproducts from mold cost U.S. insurers more than $2 billion annually. At work creating high-efficiency antifungal coatings is the MSI-funded Pitt research team of Alan Russell, director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine and a professor of surgery, and Richard Koepsel, a research associate professor in chemical and petroleum engineering.

These scientists, like others in the postdoctoral seed grant program, collaborate across disciplines as principal and coprincipal investigators. MSI promotes this cross-disciplinary approach as endemic to the innovative nature of sustainable engineering. Rooted in the principles of green engineering are conservation, protection of human health, local geography, culture, and prevention of waste.

Certifiably green buildings today—as exemplified by the nearly 1.5 million-square-foot David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh—earn status through the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) program. LEED measures sustainable design features such as water reclamation, nontoxic materials, and energy efficiencies.

Yet the smart buildings of today are just not smart enough. This is the guiding principle of MSI and green engineering as articulated by Beckman. Seated at his desk, swiveling his chair to his computer, then rising and walking to a different part of the room, he calls attention to the variable room temperature.

Finding ways to monitor and remedy the problem and meet the needs of a building’s inhabitants are Pitt engineer Marlin Mickle and his four-person research team. The scientists are exploring the design of a low-cost, low-energy central nervous system for buildings that can quickly adjust interior conditions to suit occupants and maximize efficiency. Mickle is the Nickolas A. DeCecco Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

With one-third of the world’s energy, water, and materials consumed by the built environment, the need for sustainable construction would seem apparent. Industry, however, requires demonstrable evidence that redesign of a product will save money.

Beckman, armed with what he knows from experience about science in the service of sustainability, describes MSI’s goal of pulling—not pushing—industry and society. Energy savings are calculable. Employees in fresh-air environments are more productive and less prone to illness. Healthcare costs to employers are lower. Manufacturers can do better, observes Beckman, than spending 20 liters of water to produce a two-gram microchip. With cost efficiency comes savings, and industry is pulled along the alluring green way.

With 12 seed grants under way or approved at Pitt and a partnership being extended to Penn State researchers, MSI is sowing innovation. Results of seed grant research spawn longer-term grants from government. Plans call for funding to support green in the engineering curriculum, along with funding for undergraduate research projects. MSI hosted its biennial conference on sustainability in April 2005, and the future already looks greener.
—Alan Gintzler

Breakthroughs in the Making

April Randle followed this routine twice before. The graduate student in Pitt’s Department of Biological Sciences slipped a hefty application, addressed to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, into the mailbox. Would the third time indeed be the charm?

Yes. Of 1,600 applicants, Randle was one of only 100 chosen for a fellowship named Science to Achieve Results (STAR). The funding will enable Randle, who is in the ecology and evolution program, to spend the next three years researching the decline of pollinator species—insects or animals that spread pollen from plants and aid fertilization—in America and the effects this will have on many of our native plants and crops.

Although most people might not notice it, North America has been experiencing significant declines in its pollinator populations, like the honeybee. Randle notes that about 20 percent have been lost since 1990. She quotes studies that show 90 percent of all flowering plants and 33 percent of crop plants depend on these pollinators to produce fruit. The current estimate on the annual value of pollinator services in the United States alone is as much as $115 billion. The loss of these pollinators would have ominous implications for the agricultural community.

Part of Randle’s STAR research could explain why the pollinator decline is happening. “I can’t stress enough how important these fellowships are for graduate students,” she says. “This is just one example of how a small investment by Congress can make a huge difference in the progress of science in this country by fostering the development of emerging scientists.”

Unlike many college students her age, Randle can safely say that she is exactly where she wants to be. For someone who has always been at home in the outdoors, she now has the chance, with the fellowship, to conduct research that may have far-reaching benefits beyond the
—Rob Markowski


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