Structural features of food webs provide guidelines for building industrial networks – sciencedaily

By translating the pattern of interconnections between nature’s food chains into industrial networks, researchers at Texas A&M University have defined guidelines for building thriving industrial communities. The researchers said these directions can facilitate economic growth, reduce emissions and reduce waste while ensuring that partner industries can recover from unexpected disruptions.

“Industries can often come together to trade by-products, and over time these industries can form larger communities. While these networks appear to be quite beneficial for all industry partners within the community, they are not always successful, ”said Dr. Astrid Layton, assistant professor at the J. Mike Walker ’66 Department of Engineering. mechanical. “We’ve tried to solve this problem by providing design guidelines inspired by nature’s food webs so that the overall system is both green and money-saving for everyone.

The researchers published their study in the journal Resources, conservation and recycling.

An essential part of the management of any industry is identifying those resources, such as raw materials, which are economically viable. Rather than having each industry work out these details independently, an eco-industrial park or network of partner industries is an emerging trend. Moreover, the companies belonging to these parks work in symbiosis where, just like in nature, the industries mutually benefit from each other. For example, the waste of one industry is the raw material of another, which often saves money for both partners.

When successful, industrial symbiosis can help reduce raw material use, costs and emissions while generating significant financial returns. However, there have also been cases where eco-industrial parks have not worked.

“When eco-industrial parks started to be successful, people took notice and started trying to form their own community of businesses that traded by-products, but these ‘bottom-up’ designs can be random, ”Layton said. “The underlying reasons can be many, maybe economic or if, for example, a company goes bankrupt, the whole system goes down because they are all connected.”

To combat this problem, the researchers sought to provide guidelines on how best to design these industrial communities to take advantage of the benefits of industrial symbiosis while avoiding falls.

For their analysis, Layton and his team referred to food webs that are both resistant to disturbance and produce minimal waste. These biological networks are made up of multiple food chains linking predators and prey. Moreover, the organization of interconnected chains in food webs has been extensively studied over the years using quantitative measures. Among the many measures, the researchers were particularly interested in one called nesting.

This metric, which ranges from 0 to 1, reflects where connections occur within networks. When the nesting has values ​​closer to one, there is a hierarchy in the connections, in other words, one actor is connected to all the other actors in the network, another actor is connected to a subset of these, and so on. For example, a strongly nested structure would be one where some species of bees pollinate a variety of plants while other “specialized” bees pollinate only a small number of plants in this much larger set. Alternatively, badly nested structures have values ​​closer to zero and all actors in the network can be connected to each other.

But unlike food webs, many industrial networks have been shown to have low nesting. Thus, the researchers tested whether increasing interweaving in industrial networks could promote financial profit and the ability of industries to recover from disruptions.

For their study, Layton and his team included nine industries, including a fertilizer plant, a pharmaceutical plant, and a wastewater treatment plant, that could participate in five types of water-based exchanges. Then they created 4000 different network designs, divided into 200 designs with 20 different nesting values.

They found that when the network design had high nesting, the use of fresh water was less and the network survived unforeseen disturbances, which ultimately resulted in more savings and conservation of resources. resources. They also found that in more specific scenarios, such as when industries were geographically dispersed and resources were very expensive, high nesting in industry networks was even more beneficial.

The researchers noted that they only analyzed water exchanges in the current study and that their future work will focus on other types of resource exchanges and environmental impacts. However, they said the benefit of strong nesting in industrial networks was generalizable to other exchanges as well.

“Water is a worst-case scenario compared to other exchange products in terms of infrastructure costs,” Layton said. “Our results identified situations where high nesting is an advantage, which can then guide network design. This work will support success from both an economic and a resilience perspective.

Abheek Chatterjee and Colton Brehm from the Department of Mechanical Engineering also contributed to this research.

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