With our increased awareness of the planet's limited natural resources, it is more important than ever that essential products - such as housing, energy sources and water sanitation systems - be built and used in environmentally-friendly ways.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency holds an annual nationwide competition to encourage college students to research, develop and design scientific and technical solutions to these sustainability challenges. Semi-finalists exhibit their entries on the National Mall, and winners receive small development grants.
Students from Appalachian State University drove to the Sustainable Design Competition in a multicolored truck powered by bio-diesel fuel. Terra Currie, a member of the school's prizewinning development team, explains that the bio-diesel fuel is made from used vegetable oil, lye and methanol, and that making it can get a bit messy.
"If you are making it at home you can get oil on you," she says. "You have to filter stuff out of oil. If you're using waste vegetable oil from restaurants, which is what we've done, you have to clean the oil, strain it and get the chunks out of it, then you have your chemical reaction and you heat it." Currie adds that, while people can do this at home "People don't maybe because we can go to the gas pumps and get whatever our fuel is so much easier." She acknowledges that bio-diesel is not a complete answer to our fuel needs "But it's a bridge to work from to get our fuel reliance and make something locally to supplement our use."
Terra Currie and her team were among the dozens of exhibitors demonstrating and explaining their sustainable designs to students, tourists, competition judges, and each other.
It's all part of P-3: the People, Prosperity and the Planet Student Design Competition for Sustainability. Margaret Garcia and her team from Pennsylvania's Lafayette College won a grant to develop their design for a water distribution and sanitation system.
"Without clean water, you limit your chances of survival with water borne illnesses," she says. "Sanitation is another big issue. Just keeping your environment clean and protecting your drinking water. These things are critical for a healthy lifestyle."
Garcia and her team designed a two-pipe system to filter the natural arsenic from a mountain spring used by a rural village in the Central American nation of Honduras.
Garcia says the team is also educating the community "on watershed management to keep the water nice and clean at the source, (and) conservation, so you use a good amount of water but you don't 'go crazy' with it."
Garcia's colleagues also teach locals how to maintain the system once it is built. "Because it's the community's project," she says. "So we want them to take 'ownership' of it and be able to maintain it from now until forever, basically."
There was an unmistakable whiff of idealism among the young designers at the EPA Competition. But, according to George Gray, who directs the agency's Office of Research and Development, these projects are also designed to make money in the real marketplace.
"We have to think about efficiency, we have to think about innovations and we have to think about economic competitiveness… This is about solutions!" says Gray. "If we want the American people and if we want the people around the world to take this up, we've got to make it something that works for them."
Gray points proudly four new small businesses that are running from last year's competition. "So these are not just ideas that are pie in the sky," he says. "These are things that are out there that can help people and make a difference today."
Michael Murray is running one of those small businesses. He was a student at Oberlin College on Ohio two years ago when his team presented a computerized system that could monitor water and electricity use and waste generation in a so-called "green," environmentally sound building on campus.
With an award of $10,000, the team refined their product and, last year, garnered an additional $75,000 from the EPA for use by Oberlin College. The college then hired Murray's small new company to track energy use in 20 of the college's 1950s era dormitories, hoping to identify ways to save money while saving energy.
"And so we instrumented these buildings and we created a dorm energy competition. So dorms would compete against one another to see who could reduce their electricity use the most," he explains. "And what we found is the dorms with real time monitoring, where they had immediate information feedback, reduced their electricity use significantly more than the dorms that did not have that feedback."
Another approach to sustainability on campus will come from one of this year's winners. A team from Stanford University will design, build and operate what they call 'The Green Dorm.' The facility, with residential, laboratory and common space, will allow the students to explore both sustainable building technologies and sustainable living habits.
Other winners include a design using natural fiber and other bio-composite materials for load-bearing elements in buildings, an environmentally-friendly way to create compounds with promising anti-cancer activity, and an interactive website for students and teachers that conveys the principles of whole systems design.