Layton tests feasibility of modeling industry networks after nature

Layton, AstridIn nature, networks have evolved where animals and plants interact and use efficient methods to best utilize resources. Dr. Astrid Layton, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M University, is researching whether companies can apply a similar concept of how this natural network looks and behaves in an effort to create more sustainable networks of industries.

Layton’s work focuses around the idea of bio-inspired design, based on networks that exist in the natural environment. Instead of discarding resources, such as food and water after their initial use, systems in nature are set up to extract every bit a usefulness from a resource making the overall system stronger and more efficient. Layton thinks that industries could use comparable methods to establish and increase byproduct and resource exchanges, such as water, steam and more. The ideal solution is to create a more sustainable arrangement that is beneficial for the environment while also offering favorable economic solutions. 

“I don’t think they have to be mutually exclusive,” Layton said. “I really believe that there’s no reason why we can’t find ways to do things that are good for the environment and good economic decisions, and I have found support for that so far.”

While the idea of mimicking nature has been used in industry when designing products, the practice is not common at the broader network level.

“All these different industries affect each other and they affect the environment around them,” Layton said. “By zooming out you see all of these different effects, and by looking at them in terms of ecosystems, you can start thinking about them the way ecologists think about ecosystems.”

Layton said one example of industries working toward a bio-inspired design is the Kalundborg Eco-industrial Park in Denmark. The complex, which includes a variety of industries, such as power stations, oil companies and refineries, began to create resource and byproduct exchanges approximately 50 years ago to address groundwater limitations. 

“The companies started looking at [the problem] as a community, the industrial community, and started forming relationships and started exchanging wastewater streams, greywater streams, steam and more,” Layton said.”

There are now more than 30 material and energy exchanges documented in this ecosystem-like structure, which has led to annual carbon dioxide emissions decreasing by 240 kilotonnes and a reduction of 264 million gallons of scarce ground water.

Among the questions Layton’s research in the Bio-Inspired Sustainable Systems Design Lab brings up is how to present the benefits of the types of networks in quantitative, rather than qualitative, terms. Layton said sustainability discussions tend to depend on qualitative information, which may be “brushed off” by scientists and engineers. Instead, Layton is working to calculate clear and numerical limits and goals for design.

To better analyze these networks, Layton uses available information from networks of industries, both in the United States and overseas. From the information she has designed a model of an industry network inspired by a real network. The computer model is given a set of collective quantifiable goals—reduce cost, reduce emissions, mimic natural models, etc.— and runs through all possible variables to reach the solution. Researchers can add and remove connections between companies to see if it is possible to create the ideal sustainable environment. Layton said the different models allow for the team to learn more about what aspects of nature can be adapted for industry networks and which do not make sense in that environment.

“Ideally we would like to show that there are beneficial properties that come about from forming these relationships in a certain way so we’re learning how to design these relationships, how to expand on the design of these relationships to make them better, to make them behave more like nature,” she said. “The hypothesis really started out that if we can make these networks look like nature they’ll act more like nature.”

This information can be used to develop an economically competitive industrial complex while also minimizing any negative impact on the environment.

Layton said the research has yielded some interesting results. In one simulation, the computer model aimed at mimicking a natural design was able to meet the traditional industrial goals of decreasing costs and reducing emissions. The results indicate that there are many aspects of the natural networks that need further research.

“The research is understanding what else there is that we can get from the design of natural systems that we don’t understand yet, what else should we be looking at,” she said.