The Seven Key Aspects Of Environmental Issues


Algal bloom in village river. Adapted from photo "Taken in a small village in mountains near Chengdu, Sichuan, China." Image credit:WIkipedia
An earth day perspective. High-profile environmental issues resolve slowly, as changing perspectives dawn on pubic consciousness, one after the other, crashing into view like waves on a beach. Though the order of incoming 'waves' varies, the same seven topics ultimately must be dealt with, whether it's about climate change, an oil spill, or wind turbines popping up on the landscape, for example.As an issue develops, these are the seven key aspects: 1.) scientific understanding, 2.) engineering analysis (material & energy balance, process economics, etc.), 3.) product design (what end use consumers experience) 4.) legal and regulatory choices (the public policy piece, ranging from the local to international), 5.) public health & environmental impacts, 6.) politics, and, 7.) corporate environmental health and safety management systems.

Two of the seven, engineering analysis (2.) and corporate management systems (7.) are typically glossed over in print and digital media...at the peril of all.

The engineering example.
Investigation of the viability of liquid fuel production from algal bio-mass well illustrates the importance of doing several, broadly-scoped engineering analysis - working from mass balance on out to process economics. (Engineering work typically does not undergo peer review the same way that published science does. So, it is important to look at the work of independent investigators as well as that of project 'hopefuls')

Energy.gov reports that 17% of the US oil imports could be replaced with algal biofuels. Take special note of the part of this cite I put in bold.

Today, the Department's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) came out with a new study that shows that 17 percent of the United States' imported oil for transportation could be replaced with American-grown bio-fuels from algae....

The study's researchers found that by growing algae in strategic locations, the U.S. could produce 21 billion gallons of algal oil while reducing the amount of water that is needed for production...And by concentrating algae production in the U.S. regions that have the sunniest and most humid climates - the Gulf Coast, the Southeastern Seaboard and the Great Lakes - the process will use much less water.

Looking beyond freshwater, the PNNL scientists also noted that algae has several advantages over other bio-fuel sources. For example, as organisms that consume carbon dioxide, algae can feed off the carbon emissions from power plants and, through their ability to digest nitrogen and phosphorous, grow in (and clean) municipal waste water.

Below is a different take on this same topic...one which offers a different perspective using a bigger tool box.

Keep an eye out for the 'unbalanced system.'
Kansas State University, Biodiesel Magazine, and other sources covering this story report that "A team of researchers at Kansas State University is studying the environmental and economic sustainability of algae biodiesel production." (I cite the article at length below; but, it would be worth your time to read the entire thing at the above link.)

Engineering technique:

Mass balance is addressed in each unit operation. Examples of unit operations include the algae pond, the distillation column, and the biodiesel production process. "These unit operations are then knitted together with mass and energy flows to represent the entire process," Pfromm continued. "The idea is that mass flows into and out of an operation have to balance...If there are 10 carbon atoms an hour coming in, there must be 10 carbon atoms an hour going out--maybe in a different chemical form of course, but it has to be the same number of carbon atoms." When the same amount of mass, or in this case, carbon, enters and leaves a system, the unit is balanced. When it does not, the system is unbalanced. One example of an unbalanced system is a natural gas reservoir. Carbon leaves the reservoir, but does not return.
Here is what I felt was the single most important insight from the engineering analysis by Pfromm, et al. See especially the bold text portion.
What Pfromm and his team ultimately determined is that algae biodiesel produced using CO2 sourced from fossil fuels, such as a coal-fired power plant, is not environmentally sustainable in terms of carbon. This is due to the fact that although the CO2 coming from the coal is recycled and used to produce biodiesel, that carbon is still eventually added to the atmosphere and is not sequestered. Algae biodiesel produced using renewable CO2, such as that produced at an ethanol plant, however, is nearly environmentally sustainable. "The only nonsustainable [aspect] of the operation is making fertilizer to make the algae, which comes from natural gas."

Here's the money quote:
The analysis also addressed the theoretical and realistic limitations of algae oil production. According to Pfromm, the theoretical limitation of algal biomass production--under ideal conditions--ranges from approximately 160 to 200 grams per square meter per day. "There is a clear maximum that we cannot exceed, and that maximum is set by the sun, by the solar radiation, which we cannot change," Pfromm said. However, the theoretical limit represents ideal conditions, not actually conditions. For the analysis, Pfromm and his team assumed a biomass production rate of 50 grams per square meter per day. Pfromm notes that realistic production rate is supported by a wide range of algae specialists.

... According to Pfromm, the analysis assumes "no free lunch," meaning no substantial tax support for the fuel and no access to cheap capital to build a plant. "It's a fairly straightforward analysis of market-driven [factors] to see if it would fly," Pfromm said. "The results are that even at 90 grams per square meter per day, it's doesn't return a positive economic picture." That said, economics can change due to rising oil prices and other unforeseen factors.


In conclusion, regarding engineering analysis.
Don't make up your mind about the about viability of any prospective "green" production system based on just one engineering study. Take several looks before investing in commercial processes. And for all you green bloggers and newspaper reporters: project neither optimism nor cynical spin if all you have is one source.

Corporate management system examples.
First off, a Business Dictionary definition: A management system is a

Documented and tested step-by-step method aimed at smooth functioning through standard practices. Used primarily in franchising industry, management systems generally include detailed information on topics such as (1) organizing an enterprise, (2) setting and implementing corporate policies, (3) establishing accounting, monitoring, and quality control procedures, (4) choosing and training employees, (5) choosing suppliers and getting best value from them, and (6) marketing and distribution.
It's one thing for a company to set green goals and document how they will be achieved in the future - what we call the 'process piece' - but quite another to openly report progress and take your lumps in the public sphere, tweets and all, if the goals are not being met. In general, it's the management system outcome that matters more than internal process.

For a glimpse at some interesting corporate examples, I suggest beginning with a recent Business Roundtable post: What Do Corporate 'Best Practices' Look Like in 2011?

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