“Given that sustainability encompasses three dimensions (environmental, economic, and social), sustainable engineering by nature is highly interdisciplinary.”
Your academic appointment at the University of Michigan is somewhat unique in that you are part of both the School of Natural Resources and Environment and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. What’s the connection?
My background is in environmental engineering (all degrees in environmental engineering). I think people have realized that engineering solution alone cannot solve sustainability problems we face today. We need to use a systems perspective, putting engineering systems within a larger system including relevant socioeconomic factors. My research has strong engineering background in the way that I mostly study engineered systems such as clean vehicles, renewable energy. On the other hand, I rely on systems thinking in my research to understand environmental implications of these engineered systems. Being affiliated with both Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and School of Natural Resources and Environment gives me accesses to faculty and students with diverse background and skill sets, which has been extremely helpful for establishing productive collaborations to address issues that are beyond my own expertise.
Your record of research also spans the gap between the natural world and the engineered or built world to inform decision making. Can you share an example of how such a coupling affects economic decisions, engineering design, or resource choices that are made?
In a recent paper published in Environmental Science & Technology, my student and I looked at the adoption and utilization of plug-in electric vehicles in a taxi fleet. Our results show that, to achieve the maximal amount of fleet VMT (vehicle miles traveled) being electrified, the plug-in vehicles should have batteries that can store enough electricity to operate the vehicle for approximately 70 miles. Therefore engineering design should focus on vehicle with 70-mile battery or similar size for this particular fleet. We also found that the cost of batteries will continue to be a hurdle for fleet-scale adoption of plug-in vehicles unless it drops to $200/kWh (currently $400-$500). This gives engineers developing battery technology a target to work on. Also we found that fleet electrification in this particular city does not do any good to the climate, as it increases greenhouse gas emissions mainly due to carbon-intensive power generation. This tells decision makers that the power grid needs to be changed first if they want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fleet electrification.
You accepted an invitation to become an Associate Editor for Elementa’s Sustainable Engineering domain. What does “sustainable engineering” mean to you? How is it different from traditional engineering?
To me, sustainable engineering uses a systems perspective to evaluate true implications of engineered systems on sustainability. Given that sustainability encompasses three dimensions (environmental, economic, and social), sustainable engineering by nature is highly interdisciplinary. The economic and social components are equally important to, if not more than, the environmental component which is usually the main focus of traditional engineering addressing sustainability issues.
Elementa is multidisciplinary and systems oriented. Is this important to the field of sustainable engineering?
Definitely. That is because sustainable engineering by nature is multidisciplinary and systems oriented. Moreover, I think Elementa should also encourage inter-disciplinary research in addition to multi-disciplinary research to truly integrate theories, methods, and tools from multiple disciplines in a cohesive way.
Practically speaking, Elementa is envisioned as a modern journal designed for a post-analog era. It is different from other journals in many ways: open access, rapid publication and dissemination, fully digital and available in multiple formats, non-profit and backed by a consortium of university libraries and academic publishers, and fully integrated with social media. Does this reconcile with the trends and directions that you see academic publishing moving, especially for the emerging and next generation of scientists and engineers? What are their needs? Is Elementa a pragmatic choice of publishing platform for engineers publishing in 2013 and beyond?
I certainly hope Elementa can be a pragmatic choice for engineers. However, that might happen in a relatively slow pace. Current system of evaluating researchers in academia highly depends on publication metrics. To gain creditability and visibility in various professional communities, Elementa need to accumulate certain amount of high quality papers that can be cited by others. However, at this point, researchers, especially junior people, need to take risks if they decide to submit papers to Elementa instead of other traditional journals. I would recommend Elementa to target to senior scholars to jump start a high quality line of papers, because they are less concerned being evaluated than junior scholars. I will certainly encourage my senior colleagues to consider Elementa.