Published: Sept. 4, 2020

Anika Levy
Mechanical engineering undergraduate researcher, Anika Levy.

The ME SPUR Program, modeled after CU Summer Program for Undergraduate Research, enabled undergraduate students to work with mechanical engineering faculty during summer 2020 on research that could be conducted remotely. As participants, Christopher Doyle and Anika Levy worked with Scholar in Residence Dan Riffell to compile and organize a standard resource that would allow consumers and designers to determine the environmental impacts associated with consumer products to contribute to a user-friendly database which could enable consumers to make informed choices about which products to use or purchase based on energy costs of those products. Their summer research project was titled, Environmental Impacts of Consumer Product Manufacturing. 

Doyle is a proud American, husband, father and veteran. Prior to returning to higher education, Doyle served as a nuclear electronics technician aboard two aircraft carriers for the U.S. Navy. He plans to continue supporting the country by working for a defense contractor upon graduation. Anika Levy is a fourth-year student at CU Boulder studying mechanical engineering with a minor in energy. In the future, Anika hopes to focus on improving the efficiency of current technologies and increasing global access to sustainable energy. Doyle and Levy's insights below provide a window into their research experience with ME SPUR. 

Chris Doyle
Mechanical engineering undergraduate researcher, Christopher Doyle.

Describe your summer research. 

Our goal was to create a way for consumers to have easy and understandable access to information about the environmental effects of consumer products. The focus of this project is Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) research. We analyzed the effects of a product during its life cycle and output factors including, but not limited to, Global Warming Potential (GWP) and weighted GWP at every stage of the products’ life cycle. We focused on single use products and their multi-use alternatives such as a plastic straw versus a washable stainless steel straw. We used a ‘cradle to grave’ approach to evaluate the energy consumption of products which looks at data from the initial creation of the product until it is brought to a waste disposal location.

Currently, the software used to conduct these models is not affordable, accessible or easy to use for the common public. In response, our team sought to create a generalized equation to help simplify the process. That equation can be developed into a user friendly app to allow consumers to input information about a product that they hope to purchase and see its relative environmental impact as compared to alternative products. With the production of our general formula and creation of a user interface, which will be continuously updated by future research group members, consumers will have easier access to LCA on products to assist in making more educated purchasing decisions.

This flow chart shows a product moving from material choice to manufacturing to the store to consumer use to the landfill.

The life cycle of a product, using the cradle-to-grave approach which incorporates energy use from material creation all the way through disposal. This flow chart shows a product moving from material choice to manufacturing to the store to consumer use to the landfill. 

What was it like conducting research remotely?  

This project involved a lot of data collection and management in order to develop the generalized LCA equation. The biggest problem we ran into was finding a way to visualize the data from the previous students compared to the data we collected. This was solved by importing all of the data collected into Excel and graphing all relevant data to give a clear picture as to what was happening. This ended up being instrumental in devising the general equation.

What about this project was rewarding? 

This project felt rewarding when we had enough research data to be able to share important and applicable information about how to be more environmentally friendly on a daily basis. One example is talking with a friend regarding buying plastic bottles versus glass. I was able to make an informed argument in favor of buying plastic bottles because their production has 11 times less Global Warming Potential.

Did you have any research experience prior to ME SPUR?  

Doyle: My previous background in research is heavily related to my mechanical engineering senior capstone project. In that project, I was tasked with finding a way to actuate a very small and sensitive single-use sensor multiple times and record accurate data. That project taught me that there is always something else to research and another method to use in order to accomplish your intended goals. I found that my previous experience was helpful, because it taught me to be resilient in my research and that helped me push through a lot of the data mining involved in this project.

Levy: I have not had previous experience with research, and this project was unlike anything I have been a part of before. I believe that my experience with group projects throughout my schooling was the largest benefit. Focusing on being an active team member who is accountable for their work proved to be essential. In addition, always having the ‘learning mindset’ and being open to new tasks or learning a new skill was useful throughout this project.

What advice would you share with other students considering getting involved in research?  

It’s important to look at the research projects taking place around CU. Looking at the work being done could spark an interest in a new area or inspire you to begin focusing on something new. In addition, it is important to let the facts of the research be the key when reporting on what was found. When researching something, especially something that you have a prior interest in, it is important to be open to see what the research tells you and not to let preconceived ideas lead the results. Look for something you can be passionate about, be open to new discoveries, and present only the facts.   

Life Cycle Assessment of Single-Use Products Infographic