Using agent-based modeling to preserve our resources

Mankind’s survival and well-being largely depend on resources provided by the environment. The more we use these resources the faster they will deplete, making them unavailable for future generations. Quantification of these resources, and the rate at which they are depleting, therefore become critical in planning how we utilise them.

Vinod Vijay Kumar, a research scholar with the IITB-Monash Research Academy, is working on a project to evaluate the dynamic impact of resource depletion by a method of consequence analysis.

The three pillars of sustainability assessment (Source)

His project is titled titled ‘Agent-based modeling of multi-scale systems for sustainability assessment – evaluating resource depletion’, and his research supervisors are Prof Andrew Hoadley and Prof Yogendra Shastri.

“The concept of conservation of natural resources looks easy but techniques to assess the rate of depletion are inadequate,” says Vinod. “Most existing methods to evaluate resource depletion are based on the reserves of a resource, and quantify results in terms of a single number or a score. Some other methods account for damage due to resource depletion in terms of surplus energy or surplus cost for future resource extractions.”

None of these methods considers time as a factor in their evaluation, he adds. “It is expected that technology would improve as time progresses, and hence we would be able to extract more resources which were earlier inaccessible. This is why the impact assessment of the rate of resource depletion needs to be dynamic.”

In the event of a resource scarcity, the best available resource is substituted gradually over time, and the resulting economic and environmental consequences are quantified. The switching over from one resource to another involves both economic and environmental impact—the former in the form of capital and operating costs, and the latter in the form of emissions into the atmosphere.

Vinod has applied dynamic impact assessment methodology to a case study of natural gas depletion in New Zealand. In the event of gas scarcity, the natural gas is substituted with black coal. The corresponding impacts are then evaluated separately for a wide set of users in New Zealand—including residential, commercial, petrochemical, and electricity sector users. The decision regarding when, and by what rate, the switch from gas to coal would be beneficial to decision makers, is captured using agent-based-modelling.

The biggest beneficiaries of this work would be industries relying heavily on natural gas — either as a source of fuel (e.g. the electricity sector for generating power using gas turbines) or as a feedstock (e.g. the petrochemicals sector for producing methanol and ammonia from gas). In the event of a gas scarcity, these industries can make an informed decision before switching over to the alternate resource.

“We have developed a mathematical framework to capture the trend between gas price and gas consumption in New Zealand that changes over time. This framework would be utilised to understand the economic and environmental impacts due to gas-to-black-coal switching,” reveals Vinod.

Causal loop diagram for the developed mathematical model

The IITB-Monash Research Academy is a collaboration between India and Australia that endeavours to strengthen scientific relationships between the two countries. Graduate research scholars like Vinod study for a dually-badged PhD from both IIT Bombay and Monash University, spending time at both institutions to enrich their research experience.

Says Prof Murali Sastry, CEO of the Academy, “Vinod’s project is multi-disciplinary, going beyond the traditional areas of engineering design and encompassing the environmental and social implications of technological decisions. Among all living things, only human beings consciously make use of non-renewable resources for their survival, thereby accelerating the rate of harmful emissions into the environment. We hope researchers like Vinod are able to develop new approaches to model these complex technological-economic-ecological systems so that man can use the available resources more sustainably.”

Research scholar: Vinod Vijay Kumar, IITB-Monash Research Academy

Project title: Agent-based modeling of multi-scale systems for sustainability assessment – evaluating resource depletion

Supervisors: Prof Andrew Hoadley, Prof Yogendra Shastri

Contact details: vinodvjkmr@gmail.com

This story was written by Mr Krishna Warrier based on inputs from the research student, his supervisors and IITB-Monash Research Academy. Copyright IITB-Monash Research Academy.