SEAS project promotes sustainability

A group of SEAS professors and deans have spent two years planning the Center for Sustainable Engineering. Now, nearly two months after its official opening in March, the center is hosting a number of student projects, all geared toward providing practical solutions to various world-development problems through engineering.

“The center was inspired by the need for engineering and applied science to be brought to bear on issues related to sustainable development,” Patricia J. Culligan, one of the center’s founders, said.

While the center is not directly based on an existing institution, Culligan said that it incorporates ideas from Engineers Without Borders, Engineers for a Sustainable World, and the D-Lab at MIT.

The center received an enthusiastic endorsement from Jeffrey Sachs, who, while addressing the Columbia School of Journalism in the month before the center’s opening, said that furthering the cause of sustainable development would require an effort on the part of engineers, agronomists,
nutritionists, public health specialists, economists, and more.

“The Earth Institute is trying to ... bring together all these disciplines because ... the problem comes with all these pieces. We’ve got a puzzle and it’s pretty bad,” Sachs said.

“The center’s participants include members of Columbia’s Earth Institute, so many of the center’s goals align with those of the Earth Institute,” Culligan said.

The center is focused on three main projects: green roofs, bamboo vehicles, and direct solar technology.

According to a video on the center’s Web site, one project includes making more roofs in New York green by growing vegetation on top. This could eventually solve the city’s inefficient storm drainage system by providing more permeable surfaces and sequestering carbon dioxide. It could also help insulate buildings and cool them through evapo-transpiration, which would lessen the need for energy used in indoor temperature regulation.
The bamboo vehicles—bicycles made of heat-treated bamboo—could provide a clean, durable, and inexpensive mode of transportation, essential in developing countries.

Costi Quffa, SEAS ’09, is working on the bamboo vehicle. His group works to explore the heat-treatment process used to fortify the bamboo.
“Heat-treated bamboo has the strength of carbon steel give or take, but untreated bamboo, after three weeks, is completely breakable and has no strength at all. Heat treatment is a critical process,” he explained.

Other students are working on developing inexpensive ways to harness solar energy in a time when scientists are saying it is more important than ever to find alternatives to fossil fuels.

“Our choice of these areas was based on the fact that we already had ongoing activities and could build upon these activities in a meaningful way,” Culligan said. “I hope we will continue focusing on these areas for the foreseeable future. However, we also want to add more areas to the list as we develop,” she added.

For the time being, the center is working more on student projects than on research. “So far we have worked with students in mechanical engineering on senior design projects under professors Vijay Modi and Fred Stolfi, students in professor Upmanu Lall’s Better Planet by Design class, students from professor Jack McGourty’s Gateway Engineering class, Ph.D. candidates in civil engineering and the Columbia chapter of EWB,” Marty Odlin, the center’s assistant director, said.

Quffa said that it feels good to help people in different parts of the world and has enjoyed his time working with the center. “Engineering for developing communities is a different type of engineering,” he said. “It’s just like you’re designing at a whole
different level.”
news@columbiaspectator.com

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