Thursday, July 06, 2006

Willie Nelson, Environmental Engineer

The last time I drove from San Marcos up to Fort Worth on Interstate 35, I passed a billboard that bore the grizzled visage of Willie Nelson, the living legend of country music. But instead of advertising his latest album, this billboard urges me to go "BioWillie." Mr. Nelson, it turns out, is using his popularity among truckers to promote biodiesel, a type of diesel fuel made partly from animal and vegetable fats as well as ordinary petroleum. A recent New York Times article said that he drives cars and runs tractors on his farm which are modified to operate on 100% renewable oil, which according to some reports makes the exhaust smell like French fries. So far, biodiesel is available at only a few truck stops, mostly in Texas, but the entertainer has high hopes that his environmentally friendly fuel will become at least as popular as his music.

Does this make Willie Nelson an environmental engineer? I'm not sure he can even spell "methyl ester," much less synthesize it from the used restaurant frying oil that forms much of the raw stock that his refinery uses to make the stuff. But his interest in biodiesel and his clever promotion of the fuel to a market of likely users shows the kind of imagination and initiative that characterizes good engineers.

For that matter, the definition of a good engineer has been changing. It used to be the case in my grandfather's day that technical ability was the only thing expected of engineers. Before the dawn of the computer age, designs of any complexity, from a bridge to a telephone network, needed lengthy, tedious calculations combined with the kind of judgment learned only from experience. But today, technical expertise surpassing even the best of the earlier engineers has been canned into computer software packages. It requires a different kind of genius to use these packages, but the need to spend time on all the nitty-gritty details is less than it used to be.

In many fields, engineers have been freed by these changes to consider other matters beyond the strictly technical features of a project. These include safety concerns, marketing and cost factors, manufacturing problems, and environmental issues. Not that the earlier engineers ignored these factors altogether. But back then simply getting a design to work took so much effort that the other things didn't receive as much attention as they could have.

Biodiesel is a good example of a product whose appeal derives from the simple fact that it is made or grown in an environmentally friendly way, even if it costs more and doesn't perform much better than a competing product. These so-called "soft" issues can actually be harder to deal with than the "hard" technical questions, which nowadays can often be settled in a few computer runs rather than having to build prototype after prototype until the right combination of design factors falls together. And the soft issues are where engineering ethics comes in.

Take for example the thing that is making biodiesel and other bio-derived fuels such as ethanol (made from corn) so attractive: the relatively high price of oil, seventy-five dollars a barrel at this writing. There is one school of economic thought that favors minimal interference in markets, from the convenience store down the street to the global market for oil or any other commodity. If oil becomes too expensive, they say, people will scout around for other ways to get from A to B: a hybrid car, biodiesel, hydrogen, or even a bicycle. In the meantime, such meddlesome practices as higher fuel taxes to force drivers to conserve are counterproductive. When the price of oil gets high enough, the chance to make money with alternative fuels will attract inventors, engineers, and entrepreneurs like Willie Nelson, and in the meantime, we should leave things alone.

That argument is fine as far as it goes, but the trouble is, sometimes it doesn't go far enough. Simple free-market analyses often leave out what are called "externalities." These are things like air pollution, global warming, and other effects that result from the use of a certain commodity, but are not easily expressed in terms of the commodity's market cost. In an insightful article in IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, regional planning expert Clint Andrews showed what happens if you look at global energy costs in recent history and include the externality of military expenditures.

Andrews supposes for the sake of argument that concerns over energy security represent half of the reasons that the U. S. went to war in Iraq in 2003. Estimating the annual cost of the war at $40 billion, half of that figure is $20 billion a year. Andrews points out that $20 billion is also about what the U. S. spends on imported Persian Gulf oil annually. So if we include only half of a modest estimate of what we spend on the Iraq war as an externality of our oil supply and "internalize" it, we really spend $40 billion a year, not $20 billion. And of course this neglects the cost in human lives, which is—or should be—incalculable.

Andrews concludes that while a reasonably free market is a necessary condition to good energy policies, it isn't sufficient. When you include externalities such as wars and other government interventions in energy markets (the billions of dollars in state and federal highway taxes are another example), we are very far from the ideal free market envisioned by libertarians.

An ethical engineer will not simply sell technical services to the highest bidder, but will also think about the far-reaching effects of each project or job. That's exactly what Willie Nelson is doing with his French-fry-smelling tractors and BioWillie billboards. May all engineers do the same.

Sources: Willie Nelson's activities in biodiesel were described in an article by Eric O'Keefe in the New York Times on July 5, 2006 at Mr. Nelson's website describing his project is at Clinton Andrews' article "Energy security as a rationale for government action" was in the Summer 2005 issue of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, available through many university libraries and at


  1. To get a sense of how much we should be willing to pay BioWillie for fuel that doesn't require a military escort, consider that the actual cost of the Iraq war is proving to be much higher than estimated in that 2005 article. Some recent cites:
    $320 billion by May 2006 (Congressional Research Service quoted by Washington Post 4-27-06)
    $173 billion in military operating costs excluding weapons & equipment by December 2005 (U.S. Marine Corps spokesperson quoted in Christian Science Monitor 1-10-06)
    $500 billion in global costs by September 2005 (American Enterprise Institute, quoted by MSNBC 3-17-06)
    $1000 - 2000 billion by the end of the war (Joseph Stiglitz, 2001 Nobel Prize winner in Economics, quoted by Reuters 1-10-06)

  2. .Abel Wolman is considered the “father of sanitary engineering.’ Among his many accomplishments was his involvement in the pioneering of the chlorination process, which needless to say inevitably helped curb the spread of many waterborne diseases. I was also impressed by his work with water resource management. Based on the readings, I have learnt that both father and son were amicable characters and I was truly impressed by Abel Wolman’s open mindedness. The assigned readings suggest an example on how he was able to change his views on possible mutagenic consequences of trace contaminants in water sources. Both father and son were at the forefront of integrating engineering concepts with those of social interest and public service. This marriage between engineering and water supply and sanitation was then pertinent to the success that their efforts had on the public water and sanitation systems of today. Reds Wolman (influenced to a large extent by his father’s work) is responsible for present day river geomorphology findings, engineering and restoration. He also added in his own right to present day water quality resources and worked on water quality issues. As mentioned by Marcelina, Reds Wolman’s charismatic character was also a key component in furthering his studies and capturing the interest of parties. Therefore not only did the pair help the world eradicate water borne diseases to a large extent, but they also taught us a valuable lesson on how being a genuine, friendly and diligent human being can lead to great strides on a personal, professional and possibly even in a societal realm.