RIT is confronting the global challenges of sustainability through interdisciplinary programs that integrate engineering and science with economics and public policy.
by: Staff Writer January 2009
Rising fuel prices and increased attention to climate change and carbon footprint concerns have made the subject of sustainability front-page news worldwide. It has also helped focus attention on innovative research conducted at the Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS) at RIT.
Simply stated, sustainability is meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This broad definition embraces virtually any human activity that aims to mitigate negative human impacts on the global environment by drastically reducing our intake of natural resources and production of harmful wastes.
At GIS, researchers are working on applying the principles of sustainability to industrial development (Sustainable Products and Cleaner Production) and transportation systems (Sustainable Mobility). Their objective is to construct innovative and economically viable systems that will enable sustainability through alternative energy sources, breakthrough product designs that simplify and encourage remanufacturing and recycling, and innovative industrial processes that "close the loop" by transforming waste products into raw materials for the manufacturing sector.
RIT founded the Golisano Institute for Sustainability in 2007 to create a comprehensive research, education, and technology transfer center dedicated to promoting the advancement of sustainability with a focus on industrial development. A $10 million donation from B. Thomas Golisano, founder of Paychex Inc., and an RIT trustee, provided the groundwork for GIS. Additional funding was provided by the Chester and Doris Carlson Charitable Fund, Xerox Corporation, and the New York State legislature.
"The Golisano Institute for Sustainability grew out of RIT's efforts to promote industrial development with reduced environmental impact through the Center for Integrated Manufacturing Studies (CIMS)," notes Dr. Nabil Nasr, director of the Golisano Institute. "In conducting applied research in cleaner production technologies, we soon realized that a broader approach was needed to address all aspects of industrial development, from material extraction, manufacturing and product end-of-life disposition, through how products are used by consumers and the associated resource or energy consumption during use."
Foundational research undertaken at CIMS involved the development of new technologies and processes for remanufacturing and recycling. Research on product end-of-life issues led to interest in product design practices for improved end-of-life product disposition. Major research initiatives in life cycle design and engineering were supported by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), the U.S. Department of Defense, and industry sponsors, including Hewlett Packard, Xerox, Caterpillar, Detroit Diesel, and others.
At the same time, scientists, nongovernmental organizations, business and political leaders, and environmental activists were increasingly concerned about the impact of industrial activities on the health of the global environment, as well as over-consumption of non-renewable natural resources. CIMS' participation in the global debate, and the growing international movement toward sustainable development, led to the expansion of the CIMS research agenda into sustainability, and the formation of GIS and the Sustainability Ph.D. program at RIT.
A key research focus for GIS is sustainable mobility. This effort builds on previous remanufacturing and life cycle engineering research for passenger, commercial, and military vehicles. GIS's sustainable mobility research concentrates on long-term environmental and economic impacts of production, use, and disposal of transportation systems. A focus of the research is product design, which has an amplified effect on the other life cycle stages.
The GIS Sustainable Mobility research program includes the following areas of current research:
Life cycle engineering and sustainable design covers the product life cycle, with an emphasis on the design phase. Sustainable design practices consider the entire product life cycle, including sustainable materials selection, clean production, design for end-of-life disposition (recovery, disassembly, reuse, remanufacturing, and recycling), and advanced product support and logistics systems. The development of sustainability metrics and assessment methods is a further element of this research.
System health management uses vehicle usage data, together with sensor or inspection data, to diagnose the current state of a vehicle or to prognose the future state of a vehicle. A goal of system health management is optimization of vehicle maintenance, resulting in improved performance and efficiency over the product life cycle. System health management can also enable increased component remanufacturing and reuse by triggering maintenance before unrestorable product damage occurs. Increased material reuse results in lower energy consumption and waste associated with the product life cycle.
Key research areas that support system health management are: material aging, physics of failure, signature analysis, and model-based prognostics. The Office of Naval Research has funded a number of research initiatives in this area, including a $150 million program in which GIS developed a health monitoring system for Marine Corps ground vehicles that is currently deployed by Lockheed Martin in 12,000 Marine Corps vehicles.
Smart products have embedded data or intelligence that allow for improved decision making throughout the life cycle. For example, an alternator may have product information embedded that describes the material content, such as recyclable materials, rare high-value materials, and/or hazardous materials that need special disposal. The usage data (e.g., hours of operation) or maintenance history (reason for removal) or system health data can also be embedded. When the product goes into the end-of-life material recovery system, this information enables the optimal end-of-life distribution process to be quickly determined (remanufacture versus recycle, etcetera).
With embedded intelligence and networked capability, more sophisticated products can provide collaborative behavior, optimize the efficiency of operation, and request updates to algorithms or software. General Motors's OnStar™ system is an example of smart product technology in mobility. This type of system can detect evolving vehicle degradation and schedule maintenance autonomously. GIS is working with GM to integrate more sophisticated system health monitoring technologies into their vehicles.
There is a major need for advanced propulsion systems to improve the sustainability of current systems for personal mobility. A variety of challenges must be overcome to the current gasoline internal combustion engine baseline. These challenges include: improved efficiency for production of bio-fuels, production and distribution of alternative fuel sources (hydrogen and electric), and advanced powertrain technologies (electric vehicle batteries, fuel cells). GIS research focuses on the evaluation of life cycle engineering issues associated with different alternative powertrain options. These include environmental and economic impact, reliability, durability and maintainability of alternatives, end-of-life material recovery, and component reuse.
Some of the current research initiatives in this area include: assistance to local companies in ethanol production; a $1 million hydrogen hybrid internal combustion vehicle demonstration and education hydrogen project funded by NYSERDA; researching alternative fuels and engine modifications for small unmanned aircraft engines, through a $750,000 project sponsored by the U.S. Army; and evaluating short- and longterm alternative fuel options (ethanol, biodiesel, plug-in hybrid, fuel cell technologies, and all electric vehicles) through a four-year $4 million project sponsored by the Department of Transportation and in partnership with New York State's Monroe County.
GIS also has a broader research program in fuel cell technology research. This program includes partnerships with Plug Power, General Motors, and Delphi. The goal of the Delphi research program is to accelerate the development of solid oxide fuel cell technology for auxiliary power in military vehicles and is funded by a $5 million grant from the Department of Defense. This initiative is analyzing material aging mechanisms via accelerated testing protocols, utilizing design and failure mode data to assess remanufacturability, developing embedded sensors and associated health monitoring (prognostic) algorithms, developing clean production processes, and development of service strategies over the product life cycle.
Remanufacturing and recycling are well established in the United States for automobile technologies. However, there are still business and technology barriers to achieving significantly higher remanufacturing and recycling rates. GIS research efforts target overcoming remanufacturing technology barriers. These include the development of condition assessment and restoration technologies, design for remanufacturing methodologies, reverse engineering, and restoration in automotive systems electronics. GIS is completing a multi-year joint research project with the Korean Institute of Technology and Hyundai Motors to develop enhanced condition assessment and prognostic technology for alternators. This project will increase the percent of alternator components that are remanufactured and improve remanufactured product quality.
"The current transportation system is not sustainable in the long term, the GIS research team is convinced this research will contribute to more environmentally friendly and sustainable mobility options in the future," says Michael Thurston, technical director of the System Modernization and Sustainment program at GIS. "At the same time, the goal is more sustainable options that are also cost effective and economically sound."
"Implementing more sustainable processes and technologies will not always be quick or straightforward," cautions Dr. Nasr. "It will demand close collaboration between industry, government, and academia over the long term and around the globe. Still, research like that being conducted at GIS is moving the concept of sustainability steadily closer to everyday reality.
"In the past, conventional thinking held that environmental quality and environmental efficacy were mutually exclusive. Our research shows that you can have both if you design the right kind of industrial production and transport systems. Helping industry create the new technologies and processes that those systems will require is the heart of the sustainable development mission of the Golisano Institute."