Failure is a part of life. It’s also a part of engineering.
Failure also is a motivating force behind innovations being made in green engineering.
KU environmental engineering alumnus Daniel Vallero shared a message of failure, challenge and opportunity with hundreds of junior high and high school students at the annual Engineering Expo.
The goal is to design things that won’t fail, he said. But he quickly added that’s impossible.
Because engineers know everything fails at some point, they have to figure out what’s an acceptable failure rate.
“We can perform a given function. Engineers do things.”
Vallero, an adjunct professor of environmental engineering at Duke University and researcher with the Environmental Protection Agency, led Engineering Expo activities as the keynote speaker Feb. 22 in the Lied Center. Expo’s environmental theme of Planet Engineering tied in well with his background. Vallero earned his master’s degree from KU in 1996 and conducts research in chemical fate and transport of pollutants, especially those that accumulate in the food chain. Vallero also was leader of a research team studying air pollution in New York City following the Sept. 11 attacks.
“Everything matters in green engineering. I used to say this about environmental engineering, but it’s even more true for green engineering,” he said. “One thing is never isolated from another.”
Vallero deftly pulled examples from the design contests his audience members would soon participate in.
He pointed to the chemical engineering volcano contest as an example of natural systems with which engineers must contend. To illustrate further, he talked about an event all in the audience could remember: Hurricane Katrina. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the people of the region, he said, were basically fighting nature.
“Is water good or bad?” he asked the audience. “The answer is, ‘it depends.’” As an engineer “you have to find out what it depends on.”
Listing each of the varied Expo design contests, Vallero identified aspects that someone interested in green engineering would have to consider.
Pasta bridge contestants, he said, are designing and building based on locally available materials.
“Using local materials is a green concept. Basically you have to decide, do I want strength? Do I want biodegradeability?”
Students in the Construct-A-Car Contest will get a glimpse of product life cycle as they complete their project, he said. Early on automotive engineers were interested in designing more powerful cars. In the ’70s, they started considering fuel economy in cars. Today, designers are worried about materials that go into cars to make them better, he said. They also consider design after disassembly and the environmental cost — part of the product life cycle.
These are among the issues engineers must consider.
“We need to underpin everything we do with sound science. … The rule is keep it simple. Let me remind you, almost everything fails. We try to avoid catastrophic failures. It’s a result of not appreciating the threats.”
Green engineering forces engineers to think on all these scales, he said.
“Now we have to think globally and down here at the molecule.” They have to anticipate the environmental stressors at all levels.
In his own field, the humble muskrat can be the courier of disaster. They often are the culprits in catastrophic failure of clay liners of sediment ponds.
“If you can design a clay liner that’s muskrat proof, you’ll have a lot of buyers.”