Environmental Engineering: What is It and Where is it Headed?
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Environmental engineers use a combination of biology, chemistry and engineering to develop solutions to environmental problems. Their goal is to make people happier and healthier by developing ways to use resources efficiently and responsibly.
Common work performed by environmental engineers includes:
- Pollution Reduction
- Waste Treatment
- Energy Consumption
- Land Erosion
- Water Treatment
One main responsibility of environmental engineering is to prevent harmful chemicals and contaminants from being released into the environment, including the air, water and soil. This means engineers must know which types of chemicals are harmful as well as which types of practices — agricultural, industrial, commercial, etc. — might lead to their release. They look for ways to modernize processes and reduce or eliminate the number of pollutants released into the air.
Even when laws or regulations are put in place, not all will comply. It’s the duty of an engineer to detect the presence of pollutants and trace them back to their source. This process can be extremely difficult, especially with water pollution in lakes, rivers and oceans, as the area can span miles upon miles.
Once the source of pollution has been found, it’s time to develop a solution. It’s often not as simple as shutting the perpetrating business down — some businesses are vital to economic operations. Instead, engineers work with the company to determine ways to reduce the production of pollutants. At the very least, a strategy for safely disposing of pollutants will be developed.
As you can imagine, not all businesses take kindly to being told what to do. That’s where it can be helpful for environmental engineers to have some familiarity with applicable laws.
How Has Environmental Engineering Helped?
Environmental engineering is responsible for some of the modern conveniences we enjoy each day.
Sewage systems were developed thousands of years ago. But the systems were rudimentary, and not all cultures were keen to adopt plumbing systems. Then, in the late 19th Century, London was devoured by a great stink. A bout of cholera began to spread and lots of people died. A doctor determined the epidemic was caused by wastewater contaminating the drinking water. Laws were put in place to guide the construction of safe cesspits, sewers and septic tanks.
In the early days, civilizations would pop up around water sources, something needed to survive. Later, in ancient Greek and Rome, aqueducts were used to transport water to highly populated areas lacking natural resources. We still have similar problems today, with some of the most populated cities in the world — Miami, London, Beijing and more — in critical danger of running out of clean drinking water. Aqueducts require a great deal of planning but use nothing beyond gravity to transport water across long distances.
A more modern example of environmental engineering’s involvement is the electric car, a greener way to travel. Electric cars combine an electric motor with a combustion engine to increase gasoline efficiency and reduce waste output. It also reduces your reliance on fossil fuels. There are several different types of hybrid car options, including series hybrids, plug-in hybrids and mild hybrids.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Environmental engineering is all about developing modern and convenient solutions to society-wide problems. As technology rapidly evolves, so will the developments we see.
Where is Environmental Engineering Headed?
It’s predicted jobs in environmental engineering will grow by eight percent in the next three years, the equivalent of 4,500 new engineering positions waiting to be filled. It’s also a field where ladies are thriving, with women making up 14% of the engineering workforce.
One reason the field is growing is due to concerns regarding the availability of fresh drinking water, something communities all around the world face. The field of environmental engineering will focus on developing new and improved practices for conserving water.
Another focus will be on wastewater treatment, especially in areas of the country where fracking, drilling for shale gas, is becoming more common. This drilling method requires massive amounts of water, from 390,000 to 6.27 million gallons of water per well. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has made it a priority to clean up these contaminated sites, and the additional work will require more engineers in the field.
Engineers don’t always work with problems hands-on. They also coordinate with government agencies to develop laws and regulations for sustainable practices. Beyond those practices, they organize steps for enforcement based on the amount of pollution or damage caused.
If you’re looking to step into a more sustainable role, the field of environmental engineering will not be slowing down anytime soon. As the height of technology and our growing need for sustainable practices collide, the field is open to those who can offer creative and out-of-the-box solutions to problems that affect the entire globe.
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About the author
Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.