When Thomas Graedel studied at Washington State University in the late 1950s, a faculty member told him that chemical engineering graduates could do anything. Graedel took those words to heart and long before sustainability was part of business and the American consciousness, he was conducting pioneering research in these fields.
“My training in chemical engineering made me more inclined to follow whatever interesting problems I found rather than stick to a specific definition of a career, says Graedel (’60 Chem. Eng.), the latest recipient of WSU’s highest alumni award. “In fact, I would say my career has been completely unpredictable.”
Graedel grew up in The Dalles, Oregon, and then Spokane, where he credits a teacher at North Central High School with getting him interested in chemistry. After WSU, he received a master’s degree in physics from Kent State University. Caught up in the excitement of the Gemini astronauts and prospects of a moon landing in the 1960s, he earned a doctorate in astronomy from the University of Michigan in 1969, then went to work for AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey.
During his time at Bell Laboratories, he first became interested in industrial ecology. Several researchers were trying to ensure that the Bell system was meeting the new environmental regulations of the 1971 Clean Air Act. With his background in atmospheric chemistry, Graedel became part of the environmental team studying the company’s atmospheric emissions. The group realized that in an industry that used a lot of energy and materials, they could find effective ways to increase manufacturing efficiency and minimize impacts, and do so in a more sustainable manner.
Graedel and a few colleagues, both at Bell Laboratories and in other industrial laboratories, began developing the field of industrial ecology, in which one aims to design processes and manufacture products in such a way as to minimize materials use, energy consumption, and environmental impacts. Interest in their work grew. In 1995, he and a colleague, Brad Allenby, published a textbook on their work, Industrial Ecology. He published another textbook, Industrial Ecology and Sustainable Engineering, in 2010.
In their text, the researchers discuss how materials and energy are used, what gets reused, and what gets lost. Then they explain industrial product and process design to minimize impacts and promote recycling and reuse. Graedel developed a simple matrix that improved the existing methods of life-cycle analysis. Their work has become standard practice in industry.
“I think a background in engineering, in general, and chemical engineering, in particular, provides a combination of knowledge and scholarship, but at the same time, the application of that knowledge and scholarship to real world problems,” he says. “I think it’s been a good foundation for reaching out in directions that seem to be interesting and useful.”
For his contributions to environmental sciences and “the new discipline of industrial ecology,” he was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1998. For his pioneering research and outstanding contributions to the engineering theory and practice of industrial ecology, he was named a member of the prestigious National Academy of Engineering in 2002.
His research career has been widely varied, including conducting research in solar physics, chemical kinetic modeling of gases and droplets in Earth’s atmosphere, corrosion of materials by atmospheric species, atmospheric change, and industrial ecology and sustainability science. He is an author or coauthor of 18 books and nearly 400 technical papers. His work has been cited more than 25,000 times.
Graedel also did pioneering work in atmospheric chemistry. He and colleagues at Bell Labs were the first to warn of urban methane and carbon monoxide increases in the late 1970s. Both gases are now understood to be significant contributors to global warming. Along with Nobel Laureate atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, Graedel wrote Atmosphere, Climate, and Change, published in 1994. The authors received the American Meteorological Society’s Louis J. Battan Author’s Award in 1995 for their work. He later joined Yale University in 1997 as a professor of industrial ecology.
For his contributions to the understanding of atmospheric chemistry and his work to develop the field of industrial ecology, Graedel, now professor emeritus and a senior research scientist at Yale, received the 2019 Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus Award, the University’s highest alumni honor.
“Dr. Graedel is a trailblazer in his field,” says WSU President Kirk Schulz. “His research not only has significantly improved industry efficiencies throughout the world, it has initiated an entire field of study in industrial ecology. His work promises to have a significant impact on saving energy and resources for future generations.”
As a professor emeritus, Graedel continues solving problems, conducting research into the long-term sustainability of rare metals. Modern technology depends on having a diverse supply of metals, and many everyday products require alloys that are made of scarce elements, such as tungsten, gadolinium, or vanadium.
“Every time we think about resource sustainability in detail, we trip over the fact that we don’t know enough about uses and losses across the full periodic table,” says Graedel. “It’s an issue that hasn’t been appreciated.”