Green Engineering - Improving the Environment and the Bottom Line

Publish Date: Feb 26, 2014 | 6 Ratings | 3.83 out of 5 | Print


Over the past year, the mainstream media has dramatically increased its emphasis on all things “green.” Concerns about global climate change, soaring energy prices, and increased government legislation are driving new priorities and expectations – from consumer products to corporate responsibility and sustainability plans. To meet these new demands, companies, big and small, around the world are scrambling to not only create products and technologies that address these concerns but also change the ways and processes by which they are developed. Engineers and scientists worldwide are leading the charge to address one of the largest challenges society faces, and they have the unique opportunity to make a bigger impact on the environment than any government policy. Green engineering provides the tools, techniques, and technologies to foster this innovation.

Table of Contents

  1. What is Green Engineering?
  2. Green Engineering Technology and Business Opportunity
  3. Green Engineering Applied
  4. Improving the World
  5. Related Links

1. What is Green Engineering?

Engineers who want to lower the emissions of their products, develop devices that consume less energy, create viable renewable energy technologies, or better understand the global ecosystem need green engineering. Green engineering is the use of measurement and control techniques to design, develop, and improve products, technologies, and processes that result in environmental and economic benefits.  While green may be the focus today, performing green engineering is fundamentally no different than any other type of engineering innovation. First, you need to measure the variables with which you are concerned, and then you can begin the process of designing or “fixing” products and processes that achieve your desired goal. Green engineering encompasses common measurements such as power quality and consumption; emissions from vehicles and factories, such as mercury and nitrogen oxides; and environmental data, including carbon, temperature, and water quality.

National Instruments enables green engineering by providing measurement, automation, and design tools that empower engineers and scientists to first quantify and understand real-world data and, second, correct problems by designing and developing the next generation of products and technologies with improved efficiency and reduced environmental impact.

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2. Green Engineering Technology and Business Opportunity

Among the top concerns of green engineering are two questions: Is today’s technology viable enough to make an impact, and is there a real business opportunity? Brief answers to these questions follow with case studies further illustrating green engineering.

Green engineering applications span almost every industry and range from
monitoring the health of forests, so ecologists can better understand the effects of global
warming, to retrofitting aging production facilities and machines with new control systems
to make them more efficient.


The technology components required for green engineering are not only accessible but also easier to use and available at a lower price than ever before. Some of the key technologies that enable green engineering include the following:

  • Graphical software to measure and fix
  • High-speed and high-resolution measurements
  • Domain-specific analysis libraries
  • FPGAs for advanced control

Some of these new technologies have resulted from growth in the semiconductor industry. This growth has created major advancements in the capabilities of analog-to-digital converters (ADCs) while mass adoption of consumer electronics has decreased cost. Other technologies have been around for some time, but new improvements to design and engineering tools have made them more usable by domain experts rather than solely technology experts. This shift puts the necessary technology directly into the hands of those who are closest to the problems, so they can develop solutions much more successfully than in the past.

Business Opportunity

There is a huge opportunity for profit and savings in green products. With oil prices surging to all-time highs, demand continues to be strong for technologies and products that help companies use less oil in their machines and processes while achieving the same output. Other companies, looking to avoid steep fines for nonadherence to environmental regulations, are buying monitoring and reporting tools. Furthering this trend, a recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that venture capital investment in clean technology applications, such as energy conservation, recycling, water purification, emissions control, and renewable energy, tripled in 2006 to more than $1.4 billion USD and grew again in 2007 at nearly 50 percent to more than $2 billion USD.

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3. Green Engineering Applied

Green engineering applications span almost every industry and range from monitoring the health of forests, so ecologists can better understand the effects of global warming, to retrofitting aging production facilities and machines with new control systems to make them more efficient. While there are many ways to group these green applications, most fall into the following five categories:

  1. Renewable power generation
  2. Power quality
  3. Environmental monitoring
  4. Machine and process optimization
  5. Development and test of green products and technologies

The following examples demonstrate green engineering in renewable power generation and machine and process optimization.

Renewable Power Generation

Renewable power generation covers a wide range of technologies including wind, solar (photovoltaic and thermal), biofuels, hydro, wave harvesting, geothermal, and even high-energy physics. Research and development in these areas are exploding around the world, driven by environmental suitability goals and ever-increasing government legislation. Today more than 50 countries, with a variety of political, geographical, and economic conditions, have set aggressive targets for the amount of energy generated from renewable sources.

State/Country Renewable Energy Goal
(As a Percent of Total Energy)
Target Year
Texas 10% 2025
California 33% 2020
United Kingdom 10% 2010
France 20% 2020
Sweden 60% 2020
China (Phase II) 15% 2020
European Union 20% 2020

This table lists a few examples of the targets various governments have set for
renewable energy goals.

With mandates of up to 60 percent and deadlines as close as 2010, the innovation and resources dedicated to reaching these goals are significant engineering challenges. To put this into perspective, only 3 percent of the energy consumed worldwide in 2007 was from renewable sources. While this may seem daunting with much work to be done, even the last two years have shown significant progress toward these goals. Engineers and scientists have historically risen to meet seemingly far-fetched challenges, such as putting a man on the moon, and what makes today’s situation even more hopeful is the global scope. To meet these goals, engineers are scrambling to design new technologies, and many are using NI tools to meet tight deadlines and complex specifications.

Wind power technologies create an incredible variety of challenges for engineers developing and validating new designs. One of the biggest challenges is developing accurate control systems to reduce damage on turbine components caused by high winds. These engineers must use complex algorithms to adjust the pitch of the blades to maintain a constant rotating speed in variable wind conditions. NI LabVIEW Real-Time software and PXI hardware are key components in prototyping these algorithms, testing their reliability, and validating their performance. Additionally, wind turbine engineers also need to design for increasingly sophisticated structural dynamics as bigger blades, some up to 350 ft, are installed to generate larger amounts of electricity.

Solar power manufacturers also face significant engineering obstacles to lower the material costs of solar cells and increase their production efficiency. They need simpler, faster ways to perform photovoltaic device output performance tests, such as current-voltage (I-V) characterization; detailed, precise control for the semiconductor fabrication process; and accurate power quality measurements of the inverters that connect solar arrays to the grid.

Although by no means exhaustive, the requirements of wind and solar power applications echo the needs of all engineers developing renewable energy applications for better ways to measure and fix their next-generation technologies. With LabVIEW providing a common platform for instrumentation, control systems, prototyping, and validation, engineers can more rapidly iterate on their designs, getting new technologies to market quickly and economically.

Machine and Process Optimization

When Nucor Steel, one of the largest steel companies in the world and America’s largest recycler, acquired the Marion Steel Company in 2005, one of its first actions was to add automation systems throughout the newly acquired Marion, Ohio, minimill plant to increase efficiency and safety. Last year alone, Nucor recycled more than 22 million tons of steel, including 9 million cars. The process of melting and recasting steel requires a large amount of electricity, and even small increases in efficiency throughout this process result in huge energy and economic savings.

Nucor Steel, America’s largest recycler, used NI tools to develop a variety of
automation systems to reduce electricity usage and eliminate potential safety issues.

Dave Brandt, an electrical engineer at Nucor Steel Marion Inc., was charged with implementing the automation systems. Brandt used NI tools, including programmable automation controllers (PACs) and LabVIEW, to develop a variety of automation systems such as a scale and weighing system, an online reactor in series with the furnace, and a remote switching station, which have greatly reduced electricity usage, eliminated potential safety issues, and contributed to Nucor’s pioneering commitment to environmental stewardship.

Brandt used LabVIEW and NI Compact FieldPoint hardware to create a scale and weighing system to know the exact amount of steel and, therefore, the exact amount of energy needed to heat its electricity-powered furnace. Before Nucor implemented this system, the company estimated the amount of steel in each burn, which resulted in “hit or miss” results and oftentimes overheated the steel, wasting electricity in the process and producing unacceptable-quality newly cast steel. As a result, the steel would have to be reheated, which used a significant amount of energy and cost Nucor a lot of money. Since implementing this weighing system, Nucor has drastically decreased the amount of reheats it performs, reducing the 2007 total number to 10 out of more than 6,000 batches.

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4. Improving the World

As society’s environmental and energy challenges become more acute, we need talented, innovative engineers and scientists to change and improve the world more than ever. For more inspiration, see this collection of five green solutions to tough problems impacting both the environment and the bottom line in a big way. We hope that green
engineering encourages and empowers you to improve your own products and processes.

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5. Related Links


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