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Chris Hendrickson’s Green Research for the Future

Watch a video of Chris Hendrickson's talk here.

When it comes to the environment, it’s easy to get pessimistic about what we can accomplish, says Chris Hendrickson, Duquesne Light Company Professor of Engineering and co-director of the Green Design Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

But, as Hendrickson told students and faculty at this Dean’s Seminar Series talk on Feb. 16, his hometown of Pittsburgh provides a real example of humans effecting change. In 1918, the city was so covered in soot and smog from steel factories that downtown office workers often brought an extra clean shirt to change into midday.

Now, thanks to pollution control and prevention efforts, the city now has much higher air quality index, and a higher quality of life.

“Good decision making, good will, and good engineering can really make a difference,” he said.

At the Green Design Institute, which was founded in 1992, Hendrickson and others study four areas of environmental research: sustainable infrastructure, energy and environment, life cycle assessment, and environmental management.

Hendrickson worked on one project that looked at recycling and remanufacturing power tools. A European company placed bins in local hardware stores where people could put old, used power tools for recycling or remanufacturing. The problem? The company lost money on each donated tool. The reverse logistic costs exceeded the revenue.

Hendrickson and his team evaluated the process to look at what he calls “the triple bottom line”: the economics, environmental aspects, and social aspects of the process. They found that the most valuable part of the power tool was the motor, but it was difficult to tell how much life each motor had left. The team proposed installing a data logger on each tool to determine how often the motor had been used, and how much life was left. (Tool designers were on board with this, as well: the logger provided them with information on how the tools were used, allowing them to better design future tools.) The team also proposed giving company coupons to customers who returned their old power tools.

Hendrickson and his team also attempt to assess the life cycle of products — from light emitting diodes to extracting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale — where they analyze the impacts of a process, product, or system over the entire life cycle from raw materials extraction, parts manufacturing, use, and end-of-life.

“I like to think of it as a tool to improve decision making,” he said

Hendrickson uses an Internet-based economic input-output life cycle assessment tool (EIO-LCA to examine, for example, how a light emitting diode uses energy from the raw material
extraction to materials and parts manufacturing to product manufacturing and use.

Of course, with any life cycle, there has to be appropriate boundaries, and researchers must always deal with behavior. But, Hendrickson said, the assessment can tell us what the action means for the state of society.

“New knowledge can lead us to behavior change,” he said.