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It’s a sunny day when materials engineering freshmen demonstrate their first sustainability project: a solar powered water heater.

The water heater demonstrates how sustainability is integrated into the materials engineering curriculum at Cal Poly, materials engineering professor Linda Vanasupa said.

“It’s like we’re addicted as a global society to a toxic substance, and that toxic substance is running out,” Vanasupa said.

Materials engineering students learn how to build products which use sustainable resources as their source of energy rather than fossil fuels. The solar powered water heater models the “three legs of sustainability,” materials engineering professor Richard Savage said. The three legs, which include energy footprint, recyclability and minimization of waste, are the main principles of sustainability.

Having a smaller energy footprint means drawing less energy from harmful resources, he said. The water heaters minimize their energy footprint by drawing energy from the sun.

The next leg is recyclability, he said. After the water heaters are completed and graded, they are taken apart and recycled because they are not built to be long lasting.

The third leg is the minimization of the production of waste, he said. By using solar energy, the water heaters eliminate their emission of toxins.

Because the idea of sustainability is becoming more and more popular, the three legs of sustainability are integral to materials engineering, Savage said.

Until recently, manufacturers did not consider the sustainability of a product until later in the product’s life. Now, sustainability is considered up front, Savage said. Therefore, what materials engineering students learn about sustainability at Cal Poly will carry over to their careers.

Materials engineering freshman Wyatt Levy is an example of this: He plans to bring sustainability into his career in the surfboard industry. He said the industry has a lot of room to become more environmentally friendly — most old surfboards are thrown away, and the foam and fiberglass remnants don’t break down easily. New surfboard companies are finding ways to make this easier on the environment, Levy said.

“What a lot of new companies are doing is taking these old materials, grinding them up again, recycling them and putting them into molds for new surfboards,” Levy said. “It’s basically like giving new life to the old materials, and that’s one of the greatest things going on right now, at least in the surfboard industry.”

While Levy focuses on recyclability and reducing waste, Vanasupa emphasizes the importance of the energy footprint leg of sustainability.

The demand to create a sustainable world requires renewable energy, Vanasupa said. The energy world must change and draw from renewable resources rather than fossil fuels, she said.

Fossil fuels are the most popular energy source. However, they are limited and harmful to the environment, which makes changing to renewable resources a necessity. Based on the known energy resources, the world has only 75 years left of fossil fuels, Vanasupa said.

“The importance of renewables is the means to support our living without toxifying ourselves at the same time,” Vanasupa said.

Renewable resources meet the world’s energy needs without a foreseeable endpoint, Vanasupa said. The United States should be close to eliminating its use of fossil fuels within the next 50 years.

Materials engineering students need to learn about renewable resources as freshmen, she said. This gives them the tools to help change the habits of the world.

“There’s a very large and concerted effort within the community to go to renewable energies,” Vanasupa said. “Any country that has the means knows that that’s the future, renewable energy. There are efforts all over the place to shift.”

Primary focus is on solar energy, wind energy and hydropower.

“Solar is the closest to being something we could implement on a fairly large scale,” Savage said.

Prices for solar panels are decreasing while their efficiency is increasing, he said. In turn, the sun is one of the most accessible and abundant renewable resources. This makes solar energy competitive with generated electricity from gas and oil, he said.

“I can envision everybody at home putting up solar panels and reducing their energy footprint,” Savage said.

This article was written by Brenna Swanston.

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