Engineers Need to Address Design Tradeoffs that Launch Ripple Effects

Jan. 12, 2024
Chemical engineers are equipped to apply the correct tools to product development, including techno-economic and life-cycle analyses.

Chemical engineering is key to addressing environmental and societal changes, according to Jennifer Dunn, a professor at Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering, in her commentary "Systems- And Community-Level Thinking to Address Societal Challenges," published in Nature Chemical Engineering on January 11. Dunn, also the director of the Center for Engineering Sustainability and Resilience, advocates for a systems thinking approach within the discipline. She acknowledges the historical contribution of chemical engineering to environmental degradation through materials like plastics and technologies supporting the oil and gas industry. However, she asserts that chemical engineers are pivotal in rectifying these issues. 

She highlights the unique ability to consider trade-offs and advocates for prioritizing technologies with positive impacts. Dunn calls for proactive community engagement and systems-level thinking to move toward regenerative energy, materials and chemical systems.

“Chemical engineering is unique in its systems thinking approach to solving these challenges,” Dunn wrote. “Chemical engineering college students explore process design trade-offs and learn that every choice launches ripple effects with advantages and drawbacks. Over their careers, chemical engineers continue to grapple with trade-offs, making design decisions often without complete information.”

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