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Journey to a cleaner future

Upon arriving in Los Angeles in September 1984 as a doctoral student at the California Institute of Technology, Yiannis Levendis decided to take a walk. Within minutes of beginning his journey, a car pulled over to ask if he was okay. Then another and another. Levendis was worried his shirt was on backward. It turned out the locals just weren’t used to walkers.

“You would drive a block to the mail box,” recalled Levendis, now a professor of mechanical engineering at Northeastern.

He chose CalTech precisely because it was situated in one of the most polluted cities in the world: he was there to study air pollution and smog, which rested like a blanket over the city of Los Angeles, and was produced by the ever-growing fleet of automobiles and trapped by the surrounding mountains. It was the same in Levendis’ home city of Athens, Greece.

Inspired by a deep concern for the environment, he decided to dedicate his life to engineering solutions to protect it. “I’m realistic,” said Levendis. “We’re not going to get around cars and power-plants. We have to do things as engineers to improve on pollution.”

He has lived up to his words. Over the last three decades, Levendis has filed more than 10 patents, completed dozens of research projects, and published hundreds of peer-reviewed papers, a feat that has earned him the American Society of Mechanical Engineering’s highest honor in the power field of mechanical engineering. At the ASME annual conference in November, Levendis will be presented with 2013 George Westinghouse Gold Medal.

ASME established the award in 1952 to recognize eminent achievement or distinguished service in the field to perpetuate the value of the rich contribution to power development made by George Westinghouse, a pioneering engineer in the electrical industry.

Levendis joined the Northeastern faculty in 1988, immediately following a post-doctoral research position at CalTech. His many contributions to the field include several in-depth investigations of the combustion behavior of various fuel types, from coal to biodiesel. He has developed hardware to monitor that combustion and specialized ceramic filters to clean both oil and gaseous emissions. He has designed novel combustion systems, including a reactor that cleanly burns waste plastics to produce energy.

Levendis grew up before environmental control measures were put in place. The catalytic converter was introduced 10 years before he arrived in Los Angeles, but it was still not a requirement on most cars. Back then, he said, pollution was widespread.

While society must deal with the implications of poor environmental decisions of the past, Levendis hopes the work of future engineers will help lead society down a cleaner path.

“We need to be very active to improve on pollution through engineering,” said Levendis. “And this is good — it generates jobs, technology, it’s a good thing.”

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