Creating technologies for industrial ecosystems
Sustainable development aims for the simultaneous progress in the economy, environment and society. Its goal is an industrial ecosystem with industries working together to minimize adverse environmental impacts and maximize profitability.
Helen Lou, a professor in the Dan F. Smith Department of Chemical Engineering, is the director of the Sustainable Technology Laboratory, which she created in 2007. Sustainable engineering entails the study of life-cycle analysis, industrial ecology, profitable pollution prevention and sustainable-technology development.
For her research in sustainable manufacturing, she uses computational modeling techniques. With a master's degree in computer science in addition to her bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in chemical engineering, she adapts and integrates computer programming as necessary, using chemical-process simulation software and computational fluid-dynamics software. “We also develop our own codes when necessary,” she said.
In the chemical industry, Lou sees sustainable technologies as a must. “I think the development and utilization of sustainable technologies is the direction of the industry, due to the constraints in resource availability and environmental quality, as well as consumer demand,” she said. “Chemical engineering covers a broad spectrum.”
Lou is currently the chair of the Sustainability Engineering Forum within the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. She also mentored Lamar's first doctoral student—Aditi Singh—in May 2007. Singh’s dissertation, “Multi-Objective Decision Making in Design for Sustainability,” focused on the methodology she developed for sustainable engineering and industrial applications. She believed biofuels made from biomass, such as rice straw, could become an affordable, renewable and profitable resource in the region. She focused her research on the biofuel biobutanol, which can be produced by fermentation of biomass, including a wide array of organic feedstocks, such as agriculture residues.
“I am very proud of Aditi, and I know many more excellent Ph.D. students will graduate from our program in the future,” said Lou, who is currently working with four doctoral students.
Lou and her colleagues have studied industrial regions, including one in Southeast Texas, that contain refineries, paper mills and chemical companies to see if the industries could work together in buying raw materials and perhaps using one company's waste or byproducts as fuel for another company. “This is called industrial ecology, which is one branch of industrial sustainability,” she said.
Although each company in the Southeast Texas industrial region study ran independently, as a result of supply and demand, the companies were interconnected naturally because of various mass and energy flows. With the evolution of technologies and the emergence of diverse end-products from basic chemicals and materials, the knots among various industrial activities are becoming increasingly tight and complicated, the researchers said, and the economic, environmental and societal issues are becoming increasingly intertwined.
Particular concern exists regarding the sustainability of highly concentrated areas of chemical and petrochemical industries. In the research on the Southeast Texas industrial region, Lou and her colleagues studied the sustainability of an area including several refineries, two paper mills and a number of chemical companies. Both historical and current data on the technical, economic, environmental and societal aspects were analyzed. To improve sustainability, two types of strategies were identified. One was for the area industries to work closer in order to enhance the existing network—that is, effectively utilizing all of the available resources, including everything from raw materials to the products and wastes. The other was to embrace new technologies into the existing infrastructure, such as the production of biofuel and nanotechnology.
Lamar University honored Lou as the 2009 University Scholar, the university’s highest honor recognizing research and creative activity. Her work is large in scope, and she continues to explore new avenues. “Currently, I am working on the sustainability assessment and sustainability root cause analysis of different biofuel technologies and polygeneration systems,” she said.