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February 18, 2010

Beckman: Pairing green design, radical innovation

Today, everything in the news is “green” — Jobs are green, products are green  — but what is real green innovation, and why worry about it?


Engineering professor Eric J. Beckman received a medal and delivered a Provost’s Inaugural Lecture Feb. 11 to mark his designation as George M. Bevier Chair in the Swanson School of Engineering.

Chemical and petroleum engineering professor Eric Beckman, co-director of Pitt’s Mascaro Sustainability Initiative and George M. Bevier Chair in the Swanson School of Engineering, shared his vision for combining green design and radical innovation in a Provost’s Inaugural Lecture presented Feb. 11 in Posvar Hall.

“Innovation is something we live with, something we’re used to,” he pointed out. “Given that radical innovation involves step changes in price and performance, why can’t we have green innovation as well?  Why can’t we simply add a step change in our environmental footprint?

“The answer is we can; the question is, is that what we’re doing?” Beckman said in his lecture, “Green Design and Radical Innovation: A Marriage Long Overdue.”

There are good reasons to be concerned about green innovation. “They revolve around energy, mass and water — those things that we use to create our quality of life,” Beckman said.


Energy use is increasing rapidly, especially as China and India continue to develop. Increasing use of fossil fuels leads to carbon dioxide emissions, which lead to climate issues that can be unpredictable, Beckman said.

He noted that vehicle fuel efficiency has been flat in the past two decades and that larger homes have led to higher home energy use.

“In spite of the fact that our homes are a lot more efficient in energy use, this large increase in size has led to the situation where growth in residential energy consumption has outstripped commercial and industrial use,” he said.


“We throw away a lot of stuff. We pitch stuff on purpose and also by accident,” Beckman said.

Billions of pounds of regulated compounds are released each year, he said, citing federal Environmental Protection Agency Toxics Release Inventory statistics.

“Then there are things that we throw out because they have a relatively short lifetime,” he said, noting that 35 billion water bottles go into landfills each year, as well as 4.5 billion pounds of carpeting and 27 million tires (although 130 million tires are used as fuel), he said.

When an item is discarded, more than just its own mass is thrown away, Beckman noted. All the embedded mass, energy and water that went into creating the item is being disposed of as well. “That’s not seen when we throw it away but it’s all there. So once one pitches a product, all that embedded material is tossed as well,” he said.

“We also throw away things without realizing it, by design,” Beckman said, citing for example the solvents released into the atmosphere through aerosols such as paint, cleaners and cosmetics.

“The amount per person per year is very small, but once you add up all the people using them, you find in the U.K. it’s almost 150,000 tons of material into the atmosphere — and it scales with population, so the U.S. is about a factor of five greater,” he said.

Compounds emitted from products we use end up in indoor air, he noted. “Several of these I wouldn’t allow my students to use outside a fume hood,” he said, adding, “They are released fairly constantly when materials are new into our atmosphere.

“Even more interesting is that the metal surfaces in our homes act like catalysts, so these things are emitted and they’re transformed into other things. So actually our homes and our businesses are catalytic reactors now doing chemistry that we’re really not aware of. What’s interesting is that these things are emitted and a lot of them then are bioconcentrated in us.”

Beckman noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “body burden” report quantifies the amounts of hundreds of chemicals that have found their way into our bodies.

Among them are bisphenol-A, found in water bottles; polybrominated diphenyl ethers, used as flame retardants in clothing and draperies; phthalates that are used as plasticizers; perfluorinated compounds such as those found in the original Scotchgard products; polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and organochlorines, several of which have been banned but don’t degrade and, once in the body, remain.

“The levels are very small but they’re in mixtures and we really have no idea what they do long term, either by themselves or in mixtures in our bodies. So we’re all part of a large human clinical trial, sort of involuntarily, to see what these things do long term,” Beckman said.

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” he noted, citing the decrease in children’s blood lead levels following the advent of unleaded gasoline. “Since we’ve done away with lead in gasoline the exposure of small children to lead has dropped precipitously,” he said. “Once you remove some things from the product stream, things get better.”


“We tend to treat water as free, as something that’s always there. It’s cheap, we can use it as much as we want because there’ll always be more,” he said. “Unfortunately, that’s not true.”

Embedded water is rarely seen, but is part of all industrial processes, Beckman said, pointing out that it takes six tons of water to make a ton of steel in the U.S., 225 tons of water to produce a ton of paper and 16,000 tons of water to manufacture a ton of microchips.

Much of the water used in manufacturing silicon wafers for chips is used in washing, he noted, adding that the production process  takes about 400 steps, about half of which are washing.

Even if water is recycled, such processes are energy intensive, he said.

Green innovation

Green innovation makes sense, given the obvious downsides to the alternatives, as well as consumers’ desire for green products, Beckman said.

However, “Consumers generally think green products are more expensive than conventional products and don’t work as well,” and typically that’s true, he said. Also unfortunate is that many products claim to be green, but are not.

Today, any product that comes from a plant quickly is labeled “green,” although creating products from plants is a strategy rather than an outcome, Beckman said.

Likewise, he said, metrics are used poorly or not at all in green design. He cautioned that there is no such thing as a green product in an absolute sense, although one product’s environmental footprint can be compared to another to determine which is “greener.”

Lifecycle analysis impact calculations produce the best metrics, he said, noting that a product’s embedded energy needs to be taken into account.

Green design should encompass consideration of outcomes such as performance and cost as well as minimizing hazards and cutting mass and energy use, he said.

Green brainstorming should have a role at the start of the product design process, Beckman said, pointing out that in the typical development process from idea to design to product rollout, “green” often is introduced late.

“Once you’re beyond concept stage and you’re looking at design, about 80 percent of the cost and the features are already locked in. If you’re going to introduce green at that point, it’s really just an incremental improvement on top of a concept that’s already been formulated. This is where we run into the problems of performance and cost versus conventional products,” he said. “Unless we introduce green at the idea and concept stage, we’ll never be able to do real green radical innovation.”


“We have to have a methodology to introduce green brainstorming,” he said. So, how is eco-ideation done?

Beckman said that designers need to find out what customers really want, noting that it might not align with what they say they want.

“Put yourself in their shoes to understand what they really want,” he said, citing an example he uses in the classroom: greener lawnmowers. Some suggestions for greener lawnmowers might include quieter machines, ones that are fuel efficient, or perhaps ones that use recycled fuel such as waste corn oil.

But the customer’s real desired outcome isn’t any of those things. “What they really want is to see grass at a certain length,” he said. So, perhaps the solution is to eliminate the mower — by planting short-bladed no-mow grass, or replacing the lawn with other natural materials.

“If you make mowers for a living and that’s all you know, this could be very frightening,” Beckman admitted. “That’s the nature of radical innovation. There will be winners and losers.”

Beckman touted innovation by subtraction — losing parts or steps within the system; using free natural resources, and favoring multi-use over single-use in design.

Losing parts

In innovating by subtraction, subsystems or entire systems are eliminated to gain an improvement, he explained. “What’s left is allowed to become more complicated and it’s allowed to become more expensive.” The parts that remain may even become less green, as long as the overall system is more efficient, less expensive and greener.

For instance, Beckman cited consumers’ desire for decaffeinated coffee. The traditional way of decaffeinating is by chemical means such as methylene chloride processing. A greener way is to use carbon dioxide processing. But what about simply growing a variety of coffee beans that are naturally caffeine-free?

“As customers, we don’t care how it’s done. We want coffee without caffeine,” he said, reiterating, “The system becomes greener as we lose parts.”

Using what’s free

Curing and coating processes provide classic examples for green innovation, Beckman said. For instance, devising curing systems that use visible light in place of ovens that use lots of energy makes use of a free resource: the sun.

A local example is the U.S. Steel Tower. “The metal used in the tower is actually designed to rust, so it uses oxygen and moisture from the atmosphere. The surface layer rusts and that is the coating,” Beckman said. “So you used some free resources to eliminate the need for coating entirely.”

Multi-use vs. single-use

Mimicking the structure of geckos’ feet, which have fibrils that act as a reversible adhesive, can allow designers to “make” adhesive without using any adhesive, Beckman noted. The force between the fibrils and a surface allows geckos to climb walls, without using any permanent adhesive. “Our understanding of that now allows us to reproduce the effect,” he noted.

Likewise, observing the design of shark scales, which minimize friction, can lead to innovations in pipeline design. A shark-scale pattern inside the pipe surface could reduce or eliminate the need for toxic anti-friction additives that are used to reduce the energy needed for pumping fluid through pipelines, he said.

“There are a lot of great green design tools out there once you have a green idea,” Beckman noted. But, “If green doesn’t start at the ideation process, you’re dead.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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