Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2005 | Features

Mercury Rising

By Alison Emblidge Fromme

The debate over humankind’s effect on the environment is heating up as more evidence emerges of melting Arctic icecaps, threatened species, and unusual weather patterns. At the UI, a group of engineering students works to be part of the solution, not the problem.

The image of a dying penguin, covered in thick black oil, never left him.

He was only a little boy playing on the beach when he discovered the poor creature, but he learned an eye-opening lesson about the damage that humans can wreak on the environment around them.

As the boy grew into a man, Marcelo Mena noticed more and more disturbing images in his native Valparaiso, Chile. The noxious smell of a copper smelter, a smokestack looming on the horizon, and a polluted river running through his city persistently reminded him of the abuse that the natural world endures. “I was convinced I needed to dedicate
my career to solving [environmental] problems,” he says.

And he isn’t waiting until he receives his doctoral degree from the University of Iowa to tackle positive change. Mena, 03MS, and several other students in the UI’s College of Engineering have a mission: to help their university become a better environmental steward and to educate the larger community in the process. In that spirit, they recently formed a local chapter of “Engineers for a Sustainable World” (ESW), a concept that developed in 2001 at Cornell University and has since spread to other schools from Boston to San Francisco, giving students an avenue to pursue environmental initiatives.

Because of their engineering backgrounds, the 25 ESW members are not your stereotypical tree-huggers. These students are number-crunchers who look at the intersection of science, technology, and policy to prove that responsible environ-mentalism can make good economic sense.

“Students are very passionate about the environment and so they’re trying to make a difference,” says Greg Carmichael, UI professor of chemical and biochemical engineering and Mena’s faculty adviser. “The sustainability issue very much belongs at a university where we expose students to the arts, humanities, and the sciences ... in hopes of making them better informed and empowered citizens. Environmental concepts are important for a university to embrace and to evaluate.”

Currently at the heart of ESW is a spinoff project called “Kyoto Now!” This nationwide movement reflects the goals of the international Kyoto Protocol, a United Nations agreement that sets targets for industrialized nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and curb global warming. In 1997, representatives from 160 countries met in Kyoto, Japan, to negotiate the protocol, which obligates nations to reduce emissions by about five percent lower than their 1990 levels before 2010.

For ratification, the agreement required signatures from at least 55 countries accounting for 55 percent of 1990 greenhouse gas emissions. With Russia’s cooperation this past fall, the document secured the necessary participation to become legally binding for the 128 countries on board. Thirty of those are industrialized nations, including 15 members of the European Union, as well as Canada and Japan.

The United States—accounting for five percent of the global population and 25 percent of worldwide emissions—declined to sign the Kyoto Protocol. In 1999, the U.S. Senate unanimously declared that it would not join the agreement unless developing countries such as China, India, Mexico, and Brazil were also required to reduce their emissions. Two years later, President Bush (who favors tax credits for voluntary emissions reductions and the development of new energy technologies) completely pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol.

While it’s not a perfect treaty, supporters such as Jerry Schnoor, UI professor of civil and environmental engineering and informal adviser to ESW, contend it’s a start. “The protocol is a major accomplishment, but without the U.S., it’s much weaker than it should be,” Schnoor says. “Because we’re the largest emitter, I feel our country bears a moral responsibility to do one of two things—join the treaty and try to change its flaws or come up with a realistic plan on how to reduce our emissions. We’ve done neither.”

Despite the lack of government support for the protocol, ESW students believe universities can demonstrate that protocol goals are attainable—and cost-effective— using ingenuity and collaboration. “Kyoto Now!” encourages American universities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and demonstrate that Kyoto goals are within reach.

At the UI, several steps have already been taken to reduce emissions, says engineering graduate student Forrest Meggers, 03BSE. Last spring, Meggers and fellow students Joe Grodecki, 04BSE, and Tim Pasakarnis employed special software to analyze university emissions for their “Air Pollution Control Technology” class. They found that the UI annually emits more than 450,000 tons of carbon dioxide—the main
greenhouse gas thought to be building and trapping heat in the earth’s atmosphere. How? For starters, the UI power plant produces all the energy to heat a 14.5 million-square-foot campus and supplies 30 percent of all UI and UI Hospitals and Clinics electrical needs. The coal that’s burned to warm campus buildings and the fuel that drives the university’s transportation system also contribute significantly to total emissions.

But the students also found that the UI Facilities Group—through an innovative collaboration with Quaker Oats in Cedar Rapids—has already reduced the university’s coal use by more than 20,000 tons per year. Burning Quaker’s discarded oat hulls for fuel keeps 72,000 tons of carbon dioxide out of the air, saves the university $500,000 a year, and earned the power plant two Environmental Excellence Awards from the
State of Iowa.

The UI also enforces an energy curtailment program that curbs heating and cooling in select campus buildings, while fleet services and Cambus have increased the use of biodiesel and ethanol in fuels. And, together with the facilities group, UI Student Government, and MidAmerican Energy, ESW students are leading a campus conservation campaign to reduce the UI’s energy consumption by $250,000 per year and potentially help curb rising tuition costs.

Students placed posters near light switches across campus to encourage people to “Turn Off the Lights” this past fall. They’re also working on a website to provide the public with energy-saving tips and “self-audit” questions about personal energy consumption. Among other information, the site will inform visitors that the 25,200 computers on campus consume more than 10,000 tons of coal each year.

ESW students see conservation possibilities everywhere: hybrid cars in the UI motor pool fleet, waste reduction programs in research labs and dorm cafeterias, and construction of energy-efficient “green buildings.” Combined, such efforts would bring the university in line with the spirit of the Kyoto Protocol.

Considering this country’s coal, gas, and oil consumption, reducing emissions is no small task.

But, unless the U.S. makes changes, the world faces a gloomy environmental forecast. Both Carmichael and Schnoor believe global warming—and the climate change it creates—is the most pressing environmental issue on the planet, with implications for national and international security.

“If we don’t start acting like a responsible world partner, we won’t get the cooperation of Europe and Japan on other strategic issues,” Schnoor says. “We’re also missing out on a huge industrial opportunity to develop our economy, create jobs, and improve the environment. Denmark has already captured the greatest proportion of the wind
turbine industry, which is growing by 30 percent per year. In the end, the way we emerge from the fossil fuel age will be the way we develop our economy in the future.”

While most environmental scientists have agreed that the 21st century will be a warmer one, they disagree on how fast and how much temperatures will climb. Nevertheless, some dreadful scenarios loom. An eight-nation report released in November indicates that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet and that the North Pole could be ice-free by 2100, threatening indigenous cultures and the possible extinction of polar bears. Since 1980, the Arctic has already lost 30 percent of its ice depth and 15 percent of its permafrost.

In a separate report also issued last fall, climatologists and Greenpeace advisers suggest a dark outlook for Asia in 2050. Without a concerted global effort to curb emissions, they predict that Asia will bounce from one climate extreme to another with impoverished people battling droughts, floods, food shortages, and rising sea levels. Rich countries could face mass immigration or the prospect of feeding millions made homeless by natural disasters. Fear of such an occurrence prompted the Pentagon and Canadian Security Intelligence Service in 2003 to look at what might occur if the climate abruptly changed. The prediction: near anarchy.

“These are extreme—but legitimate—scenarios,” says Carmichael. Closer to home, average temperatures will continue to rise, winters and summers will change in complexion, and states such as Florida will be vulnerable to floods and more intense weather events.

For these and other reasons, reducing greenhouse gas emissions is chief among ESW priorities. But the engineering students stand for so much more. They’re also working with the community of Xicotepec, Mexico, to investigate local water and sanitation problems. Last spring, they helped Schnoor organize a popular class called “Sustainable Systems,” which highlights ways that communities can leave a smaller ecological footprint. Other projects include energy-efficient construction proposals, such as a waste transfer and storage building on Oakdale campus that will operate solely on wind and solar power.

Mena and Meggers shared the UI’s activities at the recent Engineers for a Sustainable World conference at Stanford University, and this month, ESW will host its second annual progressive career fair at the Iowa Memorial Union. Open to the campus community and general public, the fair showcases environmentally and socially responsible businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies. Soon, ESW will join forces with other volunteers to restore native prairie near the UI Athletics Hall of Fame.

Engineers must get over the “tin man complex,” says Mena, referring to the Wizard of Oz character who lacks a heart. Indeed, a “people side” of engineering has emerged that’s softening the field’s traditional, hard-nosed image.

ESW faculty adviser Craig Just, 01PhD, points out that without communication skills, engineers become technicians instead of leaders. And solving environmental problems takes leadership. It also takes compassion for our neighbors—from penguins to less-fortunate people in developing nations.

“We owe humanity our share of service,” says Mena, who plans to return to Chile to be one of the country’s five Ph.D. environmental engineers. “We’ve helped create this world. But if we’re not sustainable, it really doesn’t matter much. How can we look our children in the eye if we haven’t done our best to keep their future resources intact?”

Scientific evidence shows that the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere is ever increasing and creating a warmer Earth.


The planet has an atmospheric blanket that traps heat from the sun and warms the surface, making the climate inhabitable to humans. Greenhouse gases are part of this blanket, but as they build up, they thicken the blanket and increase the atmosphere’s ability to trap heat. The gases prevent excess solar radiation from escaping back into the atmosphere, so the mercury rises.

Environmental scientists contend that carbon dioxide from fossil fuels is the main greenhouse gas behind global warming. Coal, oil, and gas are called “fossil fuels” because they come from the fossilized remains of prehistoric plants and animals. These fuels are burned to meet 95 percent of the world’s total energy demands, including heat and electricity. Other greenhouse gases are methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulphur hexafluoride. Some are naturally occurring while others are byproducts of the industrial revolution.

The average American family spends about $1,300 annually on a home’s utility bills, with about 44 percent of that total paying for heating and cooling. Such energy use means that the U.S. emits half a billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.

Sadly, a lot of that energy is wasted. But a few easy steps can make your home more energy efficient, reduce your expenses—and give the environment a break.

  • Check the level of insulation in walls, the basement, ceilings, floors, attics, and crawlspaces.
  • Check for holes and cracks around windows, doors, walls, ceilings, plumbing fixtures, switches, and electrical outlets.
  • Check for open fireplace dampers.
  • Make sure your appliances, furnaces, and cooling systems are properly maintained. Clean and replace furnace filters once a month or as needed.
  • Replace incandescent bulbs and fixtures with compact fluorescent lamps.
  • Set the thermostat as low as is comfortable in winter and as high as is comfortable in the summer.
  • Invest in storm or double-pane windows.
  • Turn off computers at night.