Exploring the Role of Mechanical Engineering in Sustainability


Mechanical engineering plays a significant role in creating sustainable solutions for the world’s pressing problems. It involves the application of physics, material science, and engineering principles to design, develop, and manufacture mechanical systems, devices, and machines. As the world continues to face environmental challenges, mechanical engineers have an important role to play in creating sustainable solutions that reimagine how the world could be. Read on to learn about different areas of interest in sustainability and how mechanical engineers can make a huge difference in future outcomes.

What is sustainability in mechanical engineering?

Sustainability is about minimizing waste, harmful byproducts and wasted energy during engineering work. It helps engineers design products more efficiently and mitigates environmental risks. The main goal of sustainability within the context of mechanical engineering overall is to design products and systems without damaging the environment and to leave a better world for the next generation. Because it’s such an important business focus for so many companies, the industry is expected to see 96% growth in these types of jobs through 2026. If you’re considering a career in engineering, no matter your exact path, expect sustainability to be a major initiative regardless of which company you choose to work for.

Expanding the Renewable Energy Infrastructure

Mechanical engineering’s most influential contribution to sustainability lies in the realm of renewable energy. Renewables are projected to account for 60% of the world’s energy by 2035. However, the United Nations estimates that 670 million people, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and rural regions, will still lack electricity access by 2030. Renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, and hydroelectric power, are essential for bridging this gap and providing environmentally friendly alternatives. Mechanical engineers take the lead in designing and developing renewable energy systems, such as wind turbines, solar panels, and hydroelectric dams. They are also responsible for optimizing the efficiency and reliability of these systems. For example, adding solar panel cleaning robots to make solar panel maintenance safer and more accessible.

Architecting More Energy-efficient “Green” Buildings

Mechanical engineering plays a vital role in optimizing sustainability through the design of green buildings. These eco-friendly structures minimize environmental impact, reduce energy consumption, and create healthier living environments for people. Green building design is a multidisciplinary activity, involving architects, plumbers, electricians, interior designers, as well as civil, mechanical, structural and environmental engineers.

Mechanical engineers are at the forefront of designing the intricate mechanical systems that make green buildings possible, including HVAC systems, solar, lighting, and water/waste management systems. Engineering green buildings can help lower energy costs for companies through energy-efficient windows and reduce the need for electric lighting with window placement to maximize natural light throughout the day. The main goal of green buildings is to create more productive environments for humans while lowering predicted energy use intensity (pEUI).

Electrifying Transportation and Eliminating Carbon Emissions

Mechanical engineers are also trailblazers in the quest for sustainable transportation solutions. By designing fuel-efficient engines, developing alternative fuels, and innovating hybrid and electric vehicles, they significantly curb greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, a major contributor to global warming. Some strategies for revolutionizing transportation are incremental and don’t necessarily involve electrification such as Walmart’s application of technology to reduce idling time for their semi-truck fleet. By adding technology that reduces energy when their semis idle, they improved their fuel efficiency by 90%, reducing carbon dioxide emissions. And Pepsico aims to remove emissions by 2040 by moving to electric semis as part of their decarbonization strategy, but it’s not just about purchasing electric vehicles and adding them to the fleet — the entire infrastructure of an organization needs to be considered from an engineering perspective from battery charging to data capture.

Mechanical engineers also help to streamline automotive manufacturing, design and test parts to reduce labor costs and uncover opportunities to bring parts production in-house. They may also be involved in laboratory testing and simulation initiatives to troubleshoot automotive recalls or evaluate performance and safety.

Using Technology to Maximize Resource Efficiency Holistically

Efficient resource utilization is a cornerstone of sustainability, and mechanical engineers play a crucial role in this endeavor. They engineer systems and devices that optimize resource utilization, including water and energy. From designing energy-efficient appliances to developing more streamlined manufacturing processes and designing recycling systems, mechanical engineers promote waste reduction and efficient resource management. For instance, 3D printing with recycled parts allows for local production, slashing transportation costs and offsetting global emissions. Mechanical engineers use software that helps them get a snapshot of the total environmental impact of a particular design such as SOLIDWORKS Sustainability environmental assessment software. They can track the carbon footprint, total energy consumption, impacts to air quality, and water impact for every design, or even swap out materials that still meet the design specifications, making products that are lighter and cheaper to produce.

Reducing Environmental Pollution

Mechanical engineering plays a significant role in addressing environmental pollution. Engineers design and develop systems and technologies to reduce emissions from industrial processes, such as carbon capture and storage technologies. They also design systems to reduce pollution from transportation, such as catalytic converters and diesel particulate filters. And they also help minimize wastewater.

Engineers can make a huge impact on environmental pollution at well-known companies. For example, in the beer production process up to 7 gallons of wastewater get produced per gallon of beer. Lagunitas Brewing Co spent around 180k a month to deal with their wastewater until finally deciding there had to be a more efficient and sustainable way to minimize environmental pollution. They installed their own system onsite so now all this water is cleaned, and other waste byproducts are used to produce electricity. They reduced their water usage by 40% and wastewater by 70%.

Mechanical Engineers: Pioneers of Sustainable Future

The future of sustainability depends on the creativity and innovation of mechanical engineers and other professionals working together to create a more sustainable future. It also requires a plan.

One of the key challenges in creating sustainable solutions is the need to balance economic, social, and environmental goals. Mechanical engineers must consider all these factors when designing and developing sustainable solutions. This requires a multidisciplinary approach that involves collaboration with other professionals, such as environmental scientists, economists, and policymakers. Together, they shape the future with innovative and sustainable solutions.

Mechanical engineering’s role in sustainability is both profound and multifaceted. From renewable energy to green buildings, transportation solutions, resource efficiency, and pollution reduction, mechanical engineers are at the forefront of sustainable innovation.

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Matt May
About the Author

SolidProfessor Director of Sales and golf addict.