How North Central Engineering Programs Address Sustainability

Jun 26, 2018


What does the word really mean?

How can it help make the world a better place?

Sustainability is one of the three primary themes of North Central College’s engineering programs. In today’s world, sustainability encompasses interrelated challenges that we must contend with, such as:

  • Limited resource utilization
  • Energy consumption
  • Effect on the environment
  • Social impact

Consider something as simple as bricks. We see them every day, and their familiarity makes us feel like we know what they are. But, do you know the clay used for making bricks is mined from the ground, typically in open pits? The clay is then pulverized with heavy-duty machinery to make a smooth consistency. After molding, the bricks are dried and then fired in a high-temperature kiln. Finally, they are stacked in pallets that weigh about 1 ½ tons each, and are shipped by truck to the building site.

In this example, we realize there are environmental impacts associated with mining like groundwater contamination and loss of topsoil. Significant amounts of fossil fuels are burned to power mining, processing, and transportation machinery as well as the kiln, which maintains temperatures of 700 degrees to 1100 degrees Celsius (1292 degrees to 2012 degrees Fahrenheit); generating greenhouse gasses and atmospheric pollutants.

It’s more difficult to assess the less tangible effects. Open pits are eyesores. Heavy trucks degrade roadbeds and contribute to traffic snarls. High material costs make housing less affordable, affecting society as a whole.

Researchers at North Central College, a liberal arts college near Chicago, are working on low-energy-intensive ways to make building materials using locally sourced feed stocks, typically in the form of agricultural waste. Current projects include lightweight wallboard with sound deadening as well as insulating properties. We are also working on compressed earth bricks, which could alleviate most of the environmental impact of the traditional brick-making process while lowering costs. These are just a few examples of the ongoing research at North Central.