Engineering Professor Says We Should Look To Nature For Innovation

Dec 4, 2019

Adding plants and trees to the landscape could reduce air pollution by an average of 27 percent, according to a new study. Specialists in environmental science, engineering and geography spent three years analyzing thousands of counties across the country. They found that adding more plants is cheaper than most technologies at reducing air pollution. One of the lead researchers is an engineering professor at Ohio State University named Bhavik Bakshi.


Bakshi began working in the field of sustainability about 20 years ago. He said at that time, a lot of his colleagues were skeptical in the usefulness of trying to look to nature for engineering solutions. “And now things are very different. Now people think that this is very innovative and cutting edge,” Bakshi said.

Bakshi and a team of researchers analyzed thousands of counties across the United States and calculated how much it would cost to add more trees and plants near factories and other pollution sources. They compared these costs to technologies – things like smokestack scrubbers.

Their study shows that plants – not technologies – are cheaper at cleaning the air near a number of industrial sites, roadways, power plants, commercial boilers and oil and gas drilling sites.

The researchers point out that this study could be a lesson to engineers and city planners who want to make society more livable. And many of the solutions for our environmental and health problems might be found in nature. 

“Obviously engineers like gadgets, and I certainly do myself. But people do realize that there are some things that nature, and the gadgets that nature has designed and developed over the millennia, are very effective, and oftentimes more effective, and certainly more sustainable, than the things that we have been able to design through conventional engineering.”

Bakshi points to all the plastic pollution that has accumulated in our waterways, largely as a result of techological advancements.

“Many times, you know, technology clearly is important and essential for our wellbeing. But it has also resulted in unintended harm,” Bakshi said.

“One reason why engineering does result in unintended harm is because we ignore the role that ecosystems play in supporting our activities.”

He mentioned the health benefits scientists are learning trees provide to humans. “People are looking at the benefits to cardiovascular health, to mental and emotional wellbeing.”

“What is needed is how do we work together with nature, and don't just learn from it, but also respect its abilities and its limits. And that raises a lot of opportunities for innovation that engineering has hardly touched upon, for at least 200 years.”