There comes a point at which we must allow the world to change us or we must change how we interact with the world. I reached one of those points this summer. I used to craft the story of what it meant to be an engineer by sharing my experiences of building water filtration systems in rural Honduran communities. I spoke of contaminated water, of missed educational opportunities, of gender equality. I recounted stories and statistics, I shared photos and plans. Even without describing the technical details, people understood what my Engineers Without Borders teammates and I were doing in Honduras. It was physical. It was visceral. It was in the name of “good”.
Things are different now. I have shifted my research emphasis from water system design to sugarcane ethanol production. Physically, it is a large shift (from water to land), yet conceptually, the shift is actually quite small. Both topics still rely heavily on system design, as well as sustainability analyses. While the context has changed, the mode of analysis has largely remained the same.
But how do I tell the story of ethanol as passionately as I told the story of water? Ethanol is not visceral like clean water is visceral — people do not die from a lack of clean ethanol, ethanol is not a human right — however, ethanol is key to balancing the world’s food and fuel supplies. When done sustainably, ethanol production can help build a clean energy economy and create “green” jobs. When done sustainably, ethanol can bring wealth and prestige to the producing nation — without compromising environmental integrity or social welfare.
Ethanol — not corn-based, but the Brazilian sugarcane-based variety — is already a relatively sustainable fuel, though it is far from perfect. If we can quantify sugarcane ethanol’s current level of sustainability, then we can target areas of potential improvement throughout its life cycle. Since Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of sugarcane ethanol, process improvements made in Brazil can lead to significant impacts around the world.
This scenario lightly sketches the context in which I write my dissertation. In my dissertation, I use mapping systems (i.e. GIS) and sustainability analysis tools (i.e. LCA) to evaluate regional land use impacts of sugarcane ethanol production in São Paulo, Brazil. I model crop growth and life-cycle emissions, then use these models to predict future environmental impacts of sugarcane expansion. Previous LCA researchers have modelled some of these processes on a global scale. I am now integrating geographic information systems to provide more accurate analyses at the regional level.
In writing this blog, I hope to find new ways of describing my research without oversimplifying the data. I want to understand the data so thoroughly that I can tell ethanol and bioenergy stories as passionately as I told stories of clean water. To that end, I invite your questions, provocations, and inspirations. Please leave me a comment!
The blog format will likely be a mix of narratives, progress logs, and reflections on the PhD (pre-post-doc) experience. If you would like me to write about a particular [relevant] topic, feel free to leave me a note. If it’s interesting and I have time, you may just get your wish!
In closing, a few words of wisdom from former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (borrowed from this week’s ASCE e-newsletter): “Plans are useless, but planning is essential.”
Be well & be inspired.