Insights

Engineering in a Zero World

Engineers are increasingly faced with the challenge of designing solutions in a world dominated by a single number - zero.  Dating back to Mesopotamia around 3 B.C., the mathematical zero and the philosophical notion of nothingness have challenged cultures throughout history. Many have argued that zero is our most important number and will continue to be throughout this century. 

As a society, we are driven now more than ever to eliminate everything from carbon emissions to traffic fatalities and cyber-attacks that impact our critical infrastructure. Reaching zero in these scenarios is a lofty goal. But through new ways of thinking, tools and insights, along with an engineer’s passion for finding solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems, the possibility of reaching zero gets better every day.    

Let’s take a look at some of our nation’s biggest “zero” challenges and what engineers are doing to get closer to that big, little number.  

Zero Carbon Emissions 

The energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables is quickly becoming the most critical movement to a new zero reality as we battle the 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere annually (Source: Breakthrough Energy).  These zeros include zero-carbon cement, zero-carbon steel, zero-carbon fertilizer, zero-carbon plastics, etc.    

Throughout history, we have transitioned to and through a variety of energy sources ranging from biomass energies to animate power and fossil fuels.  What is unique and challenging about our current transition is the need to plan and design to a specific constraint.  Constraints don’t permit engineers to wait until all phenomena are fully understood and explained, which appears to be the case regarding zero-carbon and the race against climate change. Thankfully, as engineers, we are adept at designing under such conditions.  

One approach to tackling carbon emissions is to reduce the use of motorized vehicles. According to Bicycle Guider, commuting in a non-motorized vehicle for 5 miles per day for four days a week saves 1,650 pounds of carbon dioxide. With an increase in alternate modes of travel, many communities are looking to expand trail systems to allow more citizens to bike or hike to their destinations. The new Olentangy Trail/Bethel Road Connector in Columbus, Ohio, that improved pedestrian and bike access for an estimated 300,000 trail users is one example. In addition, roadway solutions engineered to keep traffic moving, like roundabouts or hard shoulder running, can also help reduce emissions from idling vehicles. 

Zero Traffic Deaths 

The second zero is more visible in our daily lives – zero traffic fatalities.  As the top priority of the U.S. Department of Transportation, safety as a policy goal has been longstanding but with increased focus in recent months, especially given the historic number of roadway fatalities in 2020.  The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) also has numerous policy initiatives to advance and implement a vision of zero deaths and serious injuries on the nation’s roads.  Programs like Road to Zero, Toward Zero Deaths, Vision Zero and Institute of Transportation Engineers Vision Zero strive for the only acceptable number – zero. 

To help communities meet this goal, B&N’s transportation safety team believes that a strategic plan tailored to their needs is critical for safer transportation systems. Using a process that prioritizes locations for further study and their knowledge of Highway Safety Manual methodologies, they identify improvements that can be implemented quickly and develop strategies to approach more complex solutions.    

Zero Security Vulnerabilities 

With the recent cyber-attacks on the Oldsmar, Florida water treatment plant and the Colonial Pipeline that disrupted the flow of nearly half of the gasoline and jet fuel supplies to the East Coast, the growing threat against the security of the nation’s critical infrastructure is clear. Like carbon emission reductions, cyber-attacks are a global phenomenon in which achieving zero critical infrastructure vulnerabilities will require a global engineering effort.   

In 2018, the USEPA passed the America’s Water Infrastructure Act (AWIA) aimed at helping each public water system assess its water resilience and estimate risks from malevolent acts. For many large utilities completing the required Risk & Resilience Assessments was a daunting task. In the City of Phoenix, Arizona, which has 300+ water and wastewater facilities, B&N used a GIS-based tool to collect and record data during site reviews. The information was evaluated and analyzed for threats, levels of criticality and potential consequences related to those threats. This was followed by the development of a Master Plan and Capital Improvement Program to help mitigate the evaluated threats.  

When Nothing Means Everything 

In a complex, interdependent and sometimes chaotic world, the engineering practice must continue to excel in problem solving and creative synthesis. Never have our problem-solving skills been focused so intensely on such a big, yet little, number. For engineers to fulfill their responsibility to society, we must plan, design and manage around objectives and constraints that have never been attempted. But I, for one, am up to the task.  

Steve Sanders, PE, PhD, Director, Utilities Infrastructure

Steve Sanders, PE, PhD 
Director, Utilities Infrastructure