Duke Engineering Commits to Sustainability

June 10, 2019

School-wide 'GREENgineering' initiative to reduce waste, boost recycling and save energy

PhD candidate prepares samples and recycles used plastic pipette-tip boxes

Savannah Volkoff, a PhD candidate in environmental engineering, prepares reagent samples in her Hudson Hall lab and then recycles used plastic pipette-tip boxes.

In fall 2018, Dean Ravi V. Bellamkonda posed a challenge to Duke Engineering faculty, staff and students: Could they find high-impact ways to make the Pratt School of Engineering greener and more environmentally sustainable?  What would the world look like if we led the campus in this space?

In the months since, the response to that challenge has built strong partnerships with campus sustainability leaders, produced a punch list of projects, and made significant strides toward the goal of a more sustainable Duke Engineering.

The community-wide initiative is called GREENgineering.

Focused on Achievable, High-Impact Projects

It’s focused on high-impact yet achievable projects related to improving sustainability awareness, increasing recycling and reducing waste and energy use.

“As I observed our community, and my own behavior, I knew there were things we could do to be more sustainable,” Bellamkonda said. “We are a top-10 school in environmental engineering, and I felt strongly that we could use our expertise to improve our local environment and show leadership on campus.”

That expertise—coming from students as well as faculty and staff—was already well in evidence.

Dean Ravi V. Bellamkonda“We are a top-10 school in environmental engineering, and I felt strongly that we could use our expertise to improve our local environment and show leadership on campus.”

Ravi V. Bellamkonda
Vinik Dean of Engineering

The school has begun construction on a new classroom and research building whose LEED-registered design sets a high bar for sustainable design and energy efficiency. Also, an engineering student team, led by first-year students associated with the Duke Smart Home, piloted a cost-saving LED lighting upgrade project in Duke Engineering’s Hudson Hall in 2017. The success of that pilot has grown into an official university-wide program to replace lighting fixtures for substantial energy and cost savings.

Responding to the new sustainability challenge, a core team of volunteers met with partners across Duke Engineering and Duke to collect potential project ideas.

Tapping Faculty, Staff and Student Expertise

“What we learned confirmed for us that sustainability is a huge issue,” said GREENgineering co-lead Lee Ferguson, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. “One of the first challenges was finding just where to begin. The way forward was thinking like an engineer.”

The team, Ferguson said, scored each project idea by impact and by effort, and then chose to first tackle the items with the highest potential impact, quickest turnaround and lowest estimated cost. 

These included:

  • Working with Duke Stores to switch to vending machines that dispense only aluminum cans
  • Working with Duke Facilities Management to install more bottle-filling water coolers in engineering buildings
  • Creating an online guide for staff members on planning sustainable events and compiling a list of “green” event vendors [Use your NetID to access Pratt’s intranet.]

P. Lee Ferguson“One of the first challenges was finding just where to begin. The way forward was thinking like an engineer.”

P. Lee Ferguson
Associate Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering

Focus Area: Faculty Research Labs

“These were simple things that didn’t cost much, and they had an immediate effect,” said fellow GREENgineering co-lead Kelly Rockwell, executive assistant to Dean Bellamkonda.

The green-event guidelines include providing buffet-style food instead of boxed meals, eliminating single-use plastic water bottles by using reusable water dispensers, and encouraging attendees to bring their own mug or water bottle when appropriate.

In another example, the spring meeting of Duke Engineering’s 66-member Board of Visitors became genuinely paperless. Members accessed documents through a secure password-protected website, saving reams of paper.

Trisha DupnockA significant goal of the initiative is to have each of Duke Engineering’s 77 faculty research laboratories achieve Green Lab Certification through Sustainable Duke by the start of the fall 2019 semester.

The impact would be big—research labs use five times more energy on average than other campus spaces. A single fume hood, for example, can cost $5,000 per year to power, a utility cost equal to 3.5 typical homes.

Civil & Environmental Engineering PhD students Trisha Dupnock, recipient of a 2019 Duke Sustainability Award, and Jake Ulrich are heading GREENgineering’s faculty research lab sustainability effort.

The labs team organized a free Sustainable Labs workshop for their colleagues on April 15. They also worked with Bellamkonda to create a rebate program to help labs buy super-efficient ultra-low freezers.

Recycling Beyond Bottles and Office Paper

Other GREENgineering efforts now underway will improve signage and communication to promote recycling of nitrile gloves, pipette-tip boxes, plastic film, polystyrene foam, printer cartridges, and batteries.

Meanwhile, the team is working with the Duke Engineering First-Year Design Program and the Duke Smart Home Club to apply student innovation to some of the challenges—including an efficient and effective design for a dishwashing station for office or student lounge areas far from a break room or kitchen.

Student leaders have emerged to charter a new volunteer club that will oversee and manage recycling bins to be placed in classrooms.

To help support its efforts, GREENgineering has attracted funding, including $24,000 from an anonymous donor and a $1,000 grant from Sustainable Duke.

“I have been very impressed with the breadth and organization of the GREENgineering efforts,” said Tavey Capps, Duke’s sustainability director. “GREENgineering is the perfect example of what can be achieved with sustainability efforts on campus that have senior-level leadership support and grassroots engagement. Sustainable Duke is excited to continue and expand this partnership with the Pratt School of Engineering.” 

VISIT THE GREENGINEERING WEBSITE