Thursday, May 16, 2013

The hard work of making cities smart and green

By 2050, 90 percent of Americans will live in cities that consume most of the nation's energy and generate most of its greenhouse gases. Whether sprawling cities devolve into ecological disasters or slowly transform into smart, sustainable economic growth engines will depend partly on the next generation of engineers and the technologies they invent.

To face the challenges posed by megalopolises, experts say Americans need to do more than just upgrade the current, rusting infrastructure. In a perfect world, future cities would boast advanced public transportation systems, renewable energy resources,"complete streets" and green roofs. Birmingham aspires to become such a place, with a new kind of UAB campus at its heart. Solar-powered electric vehicles would traverse its avenues passing facilities cooled in part by the breeze instead of fossil-fuel-burning air conditioning.

As a step toward this futuristic vision, Fouad H. Fouad, chair of the UAB Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering – and director of the UAB Sustainable Smart Cites Research Center – recently convened the second annual Sustainable Smart Cities Symposium. We thought the meeting made for a good occasion to ask him about related research frontiers. It's an exciting time, but there is still a long way to go, with progress slowed by economic hard times and the slow pace of technological development. When will U.S.-made solar panels, for instance, be cheap enough to compete with fossil-fuel-generated electricity?

For any city re-imagining itself as sustainable, the effort must start with investment in smart, green infrastructure – power, transportation and buildings, according to Dr. Fouad.

On the frontiers of alternative power generation, Alabama Power is currently testing solar panels at 50 locations across the state. Unfortunately, Alabama is not windy enough for massive wind power projects using current technologies, but engineers continue to experiment with the viability of rooftop units.

Research is underway in UAB Mechanical Engineering on the next generation of solar cells, some of the work done in combination with Alabama Power, said Dr. Fouad. UAB Energy Management’s dream is to carpet the roofs of UAB’s buildings with solar panels but presently, projects would take 30 years to generate enough savings to pay for themselves – in part due to the relatively low utility rates in Alabama.

Smart, green transportation systems are a major ingredient in future-looking cities, with related efforts seeking to create new street plans that favor non-motorized traffic, take advantage of biofuels and launch electric vehicle fleets.

In terms of city planning research, Fouad said his team is doing many studies on congestion management.  Dynamic signaling systems may make it possible to better route traffic to lessen traffic jams. Thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, UAB recently joined the National Center for Transportation Performance and Management to conduct multi-disciplinary research on sustainable transportation infrastructure, economic competitiveness and safety.

Other concepts under investigation by UAB civil engineers include the "complete street," where city streets are designed to accommodate foot and bike traffic as much as motorized traffic. A UAB demonstration project is planned for 10th Avenue in combination with The Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham, said Dr. Fouad.

Under the heading of green fuels and vehicle fleets, the planning commission's partnering initiatives include Alabama Partners for Clean Air and the Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition. Recent related news includes the announcement by the City of Trussville that it's expanding its fleet of compressed natural gas vehicles and opening a CNG fueling station. Compressed natural gas is a fossil fuel substitute for gasoline that is more environmentally sound. CNG may also be mixed with biogas, produced from landfills or waste water, which doesn't increase the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere.

UAB Civil Engineering has a project underway in conjunction with the Jefferson County Transit Authority and the U.S. Federal Transit Administration to design and construct a prototype for a hydrogen fuel cell powered bus, which they hope could be the workhorse of new green public transportation fleets in Birmingham. The first vehicles should on the road later this summer, said Fouad. Such vehicles make electricity to power the car using hydrogen, and they give off nothing more than water vapor from the tailpipe. On the consumer front, Honda and Toyota are getting closer to producing hydrogen-powered cars that could be sold to consumers, but they will be costly to start.

Alabama Power is also experimenting with fleets powered by alternative energy sources, and to date has more than 100 electric vehicles and 50 charging installations. The UAB Department of Energy Management has purchased two electric cars that are charged entirely by solar panels, which offer them the chance to evaluate a grid-free transportation technology with no carbon footprint.

Buildings and bridges
The UAB Department of Materials Science & Engineering has great research strength in the design of green composite materials for building, Dr. Fouad said. Often such materials are made from recycled materials and are lightweight, stronger and less expensive to use. His smart cities center will be participating in the Alabama Composites Conference starting on June 18 in Birmingham.

UAB Civil Engineering is also designing materials for use in the building of next-generation, critical infrastructures like the highways and bridges. Dr. Fouad is an expert, for instance, in autoclave-aerated concrete, which is filled with air bubbles such that it requires one-fifth of the weight of classical concrete to create a material that is much stronger. Composed of 80 percent air, it promises to deliver huge savings to the industry while creating an air-bubble barrier in building materials that insulates the building against energy loss. The barrier of air within the concrete acts as thermal installation, reducing heating/air conditioning costs.

UAB civil engineers are also looking at what's next for materials used to make bridges. Along with bridge materials research, projects underway are studying "bridge way in motion" sensors that send messages continually about the structural health of bridges to ensure timely maintenance, not to mention alerting authorities when trucks breaking weight limit laws cross bridges.

Also maturing are research efforts to develop green roof technology, where plants grown in soil beds on roofs conserve energy and improve air quality as plants turn carbon dioxide generated by cars into oxygen. Green roof test beds are currently in place atop the Hulsey Center, the Business and Engineering Complex, Campbell Hall and Hill University Center at UAB. They limit water runoff into the storm water drains, pumping it back through the irrigation system, which keeps polluted water from running into area creeks and the Black Warrior River. The presence of plants and surrounding soil controls water evaporation in a way that creates a cooling effect. Combined with the moist soil, this helps drop temperatures and has resulted in a 20 to 25 percent savings in power bills.

Both the vegetative and white reflective roofs are perhaps 80 degrees cooler in the mid-day summertime than standard black roofs, which can literally be used to fry eggs. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management is interested in promoting the adoption of vegetative roofs across the state.  

Impact on health
One of the most exciting projects underway is a partnership between Civil Engineering and the UAB School of Medicine's Division of Preventive Medicine. Called the "Go-ing Forward Project," it seeks to determine how the condition of the "built environment" in a city - the streets, lighting, housing, sidewalks, etc., - impacts the health of city dwellers. UAB researchers are going door to door surveying residents to determine how various aspects of the built environment are impacting their lives. The project's emphasis is looking at how transportation options, urban design, infrastructure decay, safety and security, and housing conditions affect obesity. More than one third of the American population is obese.

From the layout of streets to the options available for exercise, to the quality of air and water and to the condition and upkeep of residences, the built environment exerts silent but significant influence on the likelihood that people will be obese. Of all the engineering factors correlated with negative health outcomes, housing conditions are the most closely tied to health impacts. The presence of mold and its impact on asthma, poor indoor air quality in private homes and certain pollutants (e.g. estrogen-related compounds) in drinking water are all hypothesized to contribute to obesity risk.

Looking for partners
It was no accident that Richard Michos - global vice president, Smarter Cities, from IBM, was invited to speak at Fouad's recent UAB Smart Sustainable Cities symposium. UAB and the City of Birmingham hope to partner with IBM, perhaps through its Smarter Cities Challenge. This competitive IBM grant program is in the process of awarding $50 million worth of technology to 100 cities around the globe. These grants are designed to address the wide range of financial and infrastructure challenges facing cities today. Fouad met with Michos and Mayor Bell while Michos was in Birmingham, with their discussion covering the potential for IBM doing an assessment of the city's greatest sustainability needs, which is expected to yield a report and contribute to an action plan.

Speaking of partnerships, the City of Birmingham and UAB took a step toward smarter, healthier and more sustainable development with the Feb. 27, 2013, signing of a memorandum of understanding to partner on projects such as energy efficiency and city planning that accounts for a more “livable” city. Pilot projects expected out of the partnership include research into new recycling systems and lighting systems downtown that use less energy, perhaps in partnership with IBM.

UAB is also discussing the idea of creating a master's program in Sustainable Smart Cities, which would move forward with contribution from the deans and leadership of several schools across UAB.

For those interested in more information, other good sources include the UAB sustainabiltiy page and My Green Birmingham.

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