School of Forestry & Environmental Studies professor Thomas Graedel received approximately $980,000 from the National Science Foundation to study the ways in which steel is used around the world and the possibilities for recycling and reusing it.
Graedel’s team of researchers received one of four Materials Use: Science, Engineering, and Society, or MUSES, grants from the National Science Foundation this year. The experts will be studying the flow cycle of steel — its existence as a natural resource, its use, and the waste products it forms. They hope to gain a complete picture of all the uses and locations of steel.
Graedel will be working with three other co-principal investigators: environment school professor Reid Lifset and geology and geophysics professors Robert Gordon and Jay Ague. They will also be working with Tim Considine, an economics professor at Pennsylvania State University. Graedel received the first installment of the four-year grant this September and said the funding will be used primarily to support staff and students.
Researchers are recommended by a multi-disciplinary panel of experts to receive funding, Delcie Durham, program director for engineering design in the division of design, manufacture and industrial innovation at the Foundation, said in an e-mail. Recipients must incorporate multiple disciplines into their research as well as an educational component.
“Dr. Graedel and his collaborators have a demonstrated track record of working in several industrial sectors, and this activity is considered by reviewers in evaluating the proposal,” Durham said.
Graedel said the researchers will examine how an industrial approach to materials interacts with long-term sustainability of the environment.
“You might think of it as a sophisticated accounting exercise where we’re trying to gather information from geologic sources, industrial sources [and] the Environmental Protection Agency, which look at different parts of how we use materials and put it all together in a package that tells us the entire cycle — how much we’re using, how much is currently in use, how much is being lost in various ways,” Graedel said.
The research will look at deposits, uses and wastes of steel in all different regions of the world. Graedel said solutions can apply to certain parts of the world but not others. He said the goal of the research is to reach conclusions about steel use, recycling and re-use that apply not only to the developed world but to the developing world as well.
“Some uses last for a long time, and we’re trying to anticipate what opportunities might exist in 2015 or 2020 for businesses or governments and provide us with information that might lead us to more sustainable uses,” Graedel said.
The researchers also plan to share the results of their study with others outside the scientific community.
“The project was built with some relationships with industry and government, so there will be very good information sharing in that respect,” Lifset said. “There will also be other ways that we will get information out and engage people outside of the research team.”
Graedel’s work with materials use is part of a new field known as industrial ecology. Environment School Dean Gustave Speth ’64 LAW ’69 said Graedel had built a strong industrial ecology program at the environment school and that he hoped to add faculty members to it. He also noted the prestige the grant brings to the environment school.
“We’ve been able to increase rather dramatically the grants that the school receives, and Tom’s work is a significant part of that,” Speth said. “[Receiving a grant is] very nice for a school’s reputation. When they’re recognized by funding sources, it means they’re doing good work.”