PIG: Unit Op - Love Sludge Protocol / for a Sumptuous Bioeconomy

Unit Op -Love Sludge Protocol / for a Sumptuous Bioeconomy

Team member names:

Sarah Kantrowitz, Jorge Vega Matos

Short summary of improvement idea

We are working to help better integrate social and environmental sustainability into one process engineering protocol underlying design and operations for most industrial chemicals, energy, food, and waste management plants today. This protocol is based on an atomized concept of process Unit Operations and has been firmly in place since the late 19th century.

Today industrial operations contribute a whopping 30% of all carbon emissions; they exploit and pollute shared natural resources, and drive social harms like labor exploitation and growing economic inequality. Great efforts are being made to design out these harmful practices, but outcomes can vary even when guiding values and incentives have been well aligned to socio-ecological good.

To challenge the inertia against change built into the physical infrastructures of today’s industries, we propose to dig out the design ideology underlying process engineering from its roots during the industrial revolution. We will survey current sites of tension between Unit Operations-based process engineering methods and protocols developed for design/assessment of socio-ecological well being, such as Circular Design, Life Cycle Assessment, Social Life Cycle Assessment, or Human Rights Impact Assessment. We will then prototype methods for better harmonizing and integrating these existing protocols and develop new protocols where gaps or conflicts remain.

(1.) What is the existing target protocol you are hoping to improve or enhance?

Design software dashboard for assembling Unit Operations into the Process Flow Diagram for an oil refinery. What is lost in this abstraction and atomization of the Unit Operation?

Unit Operations

We seek to enhance and complement the Unit Operations framework for chemical engineering and industrial process design. During the Industrial Revolution, development of the Unit Operation (c. 1887) provided the first protocol for factories to rationalize their large-scale transformations of matter and energy into design and operations workflows.

At the end of the 19th c., industrial chemist George Davis was working as a plant inspector for early anti-pollution regulations in England. Touring dozens of factories a week and feeling them generally poorly run, Davis began working through how the problems of one plant could be compared to others for optimization and improvement. He proposed to break complex, historically entangled processes down into a smaller number of universal subset operations, each of which could then be independently refined and applied back to any other industrial chemical process. 30 years later this concept was termed the Unit Operation by Arthur Little while working at MIT.

Abstraction and Atomization

As with all modernist, enlightenment epistemologies, the abstraction and atomization of the Unit Operation is both its profound potency and its liability. The engineering of industrial processes away from place and path-dependent interrelationships has granted industrialization the capacity to detach from millennia of accrued metabolic pathways, interwoven ecological assemblages, and socio-environmental rhythms, for better or for worse.

Today, waist-high in the abiotic tailing ponds of petrochemical industrialization’s fever dream, we propose recoupling the Unit Operation with protocols of wholism to deliver sustainable, resilient, and equitable shared processing infrastructures for basic food, fuels, materials, medicines, and waste management.

(2.) What is the core idea or insight about potential improvement you want to pursue?

Socially & Ecologically Regenerative

While we respect what the Unit Operations protocol has accomplished, core design workflows for developing industrial processes need to more deeply interweave with time-bound, site-specific social and ecological relationships to become truly sustainable. We hypothesize that a new process design protocol based on socio-ecological regenerativity will be more productively incorporated with Unit Operations-based process protocol in areas of newly emerging industrial technologies, not yet fully hardened into the dense and heavily-capitalized networks of physical infrastructure. Based on this hypothesis, we propose technologies of the emerging bioeconomy and process automation as two primary sites for engagement.

In their 2022 article “Building a Bottom-Up Bioeconomy”, Shapira et al. observe: “rather than trying to industrialize biology, the real task is biologizing industry,” but what does this mean in practice? And how will we biologize factories, equipment, and design and operations workflows all built for the petrochemical industry?


This is a big project. To root in a smaller domain of protocol formation with capacity to nourish inherently lively biotic regenerativity, we are focused on the following foundational relationships:

  • Skilling of workers in their engagement with the industrial process
  • Flexibility of the process to respond to human decision making
  • Embodied health, safety and pleasure in the physical labor and material encounters of running the process
  • Partnership and interdependency between workers in running the process
  • Partnership and interdependency with immediate site context in stewardship of natural and cultural resources (eg. holidays, seasonal rituals)

(3.) What is your discovery methodology?

Many thoughtful protocols already exist for managing or assessing social and environmental impact of industrial operations. At best, these socio-ecological protocols are often layered over primary protocols for designing and running core industrial processes as post-facto modulation; at worst, they intersect just as managerial check-boxes or impact assessment commentary long after a process has been built and far from the conversation for the next one under construction. Equally, before we imagine a more holistic integration, we must first understand how these existing protocols for industrial process design and socio-ecological impact are working together or not, and where key gaps or conflicts are most in need of addressing.

Our research includes data/literary review and field research on a range of operations (below):

Example framework for mapping protocols in process design against protocols in managing social/environmental impact.

Literature Review

  • Review of historical data correlating process design basis with socio-environmental impact for a range of individual factories and sectors
  • Review of existing protocol texts, handbooks, and other support materials

Field Observation at Active Facilities

  • Range in maturity of core industrial process technology

    1. Pre-Modern traditional industry (eg. Cheese aging)
    2. Early Modern commodity (eg. Chocolate bar manufacturing)
    3. Modernist (eg. High fructose corn syrup refining)
    4. Novel emerging biotechnology (eg. Protein fermentation)
  • Range in maturity of management of socio-ecological impacts :

    1. Pre-Modern (eg. Guilds, Religion)
    2. Early Modern (eg. Government regulation, Permaculture)
    3. Modernist (eg. Net zero carbon, B Corp, LEED)
    4. Novel emerging (eg. Blockchain)
  • Gaps or Interactions observed between core industrial process and social/environmental interrelationships

    1. Antagonistic
    2. Mutualistic
    3. Symbiotic
    4. Synthetic & Inseparable

Expert interviews

  • Process engineers
  • Facility operators and managers
  • Facility workers and maintenance
  • Neighboring communities to select facilities

We propose to call on and contribute to collaboration with Switzerland-based SoP partner the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute.ur team is based in Germany and biomanufacturing is growing actively in both Germany and Switzerland today.

(4&5.) In what form will you prototype your improvement idea + How will you field-test your improvement idea?

A. Ideating

During the discovery phase, our field observation and interviews sessions will include rapid prototyping of ideas for immediate feedback.

B. Prototyping Workshop

After preliminary discovery phase, we will host a series of mock process design workshops online with process engineers and workers for more thorough feedback and review.

C. Pilot Test

As materials are refined, we will move to more intensive testing via pilot in a live process design with trusted process engineering partners engaged in currently active workflows for new industrial projects. Our team has existing partnerships projects in industrial fermentation for alternative proteins and biorefining fuel from algae. We are also open to developing new partnerships through the discovery phase of this work.

(6.) Who will be able to judge the quality of your output?

  • Marian Chertow - Director of the Center for Industrial Ecology, School of the Environment, Yale University
  • Suzanne Farid - Professor of Bioprocess Systems Engineering, Department of Biochemical Engineering, University College London
  • Christina Agiapakis - Director of the Socio-Technical Studio, Ginkgo Bioworks
  • Crystal Bleecher - Director of Process Engineering, Synonym Biotechnologies
  • Siobhán Watkins - Wastewater Treatment Engineer and Microbial Ritualist, Founder of Microanism
  • Lucy Muigai - Interim CEO, B Lab Africa, B Corp
  • Dr. Mar Fernández-Méndez - Marine Biomass Researcher and Co-founder, MacroCarbon

(7.) How will you publish and evangelize your improvement idea?

In 1887, George Davis presented his concept of the Unit Operation over 12 lectures at the Manchester School of Technology. In homage to the original industrial protocol, we propose to present our findings as a 12-part lecture series, too. The lectures will be delivered publicly and recorded to share online in both video and podcast form. We will also prepare an open-source illustrated handbook and an interactive dashboard for viewing the data and visualizing the models developed through our research.

(8.) What is the success vision for your idea?**

Successful Protocol Available for Use in Industrial Process Design of New and Recommissioned Facilities
(developed over the next 1-3 years)

  • Linearity in interdisciplinary design processes becomes more reciprocal and integrated
  • Design parameters of Social and Ecological well-being and relational wealth are integrated with technical quality, safety, cost, time, and compliance
  • Process design protocol data is de-siloed and shared more openly
  • Protocol complement/refinement is adopted used modified and disseminated by others
  • Protocol complement/ refinement feels as generic, fundamental, and obvious as unit operations
  • Protocol complement/ refinement is systematic and self explanatory

Successful Reform to Active Industrial Operations
(developed over the next half century)

  • Processing operations are themselves biological, living activities
  • Processing operations are fully free of fossil fuels
  • Processing operations are socialized for profits to benefit all workers and for design decisions to democratically consult all impacted
  • Industrial processing operations employ primarily skilled labor
  • Skilled and unskilled labor on-site at all industrial processing operations is healthy, safe, fulfilling and enjoyable
  • Everyone works generally less, enjoying shared gains from increasing automation


Signal: We expect there will be more buy-in into carbon reduction at the manufacturing level given today’s EU ruling finding that “the Swiss government had violated its citizens’ human rights by not doing enough to stop climate change.” Our proposed protocol research project helps deliver on these goals.

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This is an in depth proposal and ambitious but seems very targeted. Will review in detail soon.


Reminds me of a Dawkins quote which I can’t exactly recall… “To survive, an organism must contain an accurate model of its environment.” Something like that. Any organism with a bad model, or herd with a bad or planned model will get crushed by its environment eventually.


Appreciate the reference - thank you!
If you are open to thinking about the form or metabolism of a given industrial operation as a kind of organism, I agree that it can be interesting to ask what sort of organism that operation is like.
Has it passed the stage of infancy or is it still dependent on caregivers?
Is it social and cooperative or territorial?

The section on ‘Molecular Farming’ in this essay offers some counterpoints on why perhaps emerging industrial ‘organisms’ of the bioeconomy may be better kept out of touch from too accurate a model of their environment :

As way of introduction, here’s a little bit about our team:

Sarah Kantrowitz

Sarah Kantrowitz is a bioprocess architect helping build factories and other industrial infrastructure for socially and ecologically regenerative processing operations.

She supports facility operators and project delivery teams in cultivating synthesis between the demands of technical operations and the social life of industrial projects, like equity, sustainability, cooperative ownership and operations, worker quality of life, relationship to place, and somatically-lucrative partnership with the more than human world.

Recent work includes delivering process architecture for a 300,000SF clean-room blood fractionation plant in Texas, directing design strategy for a cooperative industrial fermentation real estate platform, running a week-long dairy spa for commercial cheese makers in the Italian alps, and hosting a sad dinner party on a dredging barge in the middle of Boston’s Mystic River, overlooking ExxonMobil’s leaking 95- acre oil terminal.

Jorge Vega Matos

Jorge Vega Matos is a researcher, speculative ethnographer, and community organizer focused on social impact and transnational mobilization. Most recently, he served as founding lead of Communications, Marketing, and Public Affairs at Carbonwave, a public benefit corporation creating valuable circular economies based on seaweed that address regenerative agriculture, sustainable manufacturing, and scalable carbon sequestration. His current focus is on accelerating inclusive models of climate that are suited for the realities of communities in transition, and codify regenerative pathways for emerging culture.

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Riffing on the Dawkins references, I’m intrigued by the applicability of the concept of replication to factories. In a way, industries could be seen as abstractions of an ongoing competition between ever more effective models of replication. Without an accurate model of the organic environment of which they depend, many such pathways of replication will ultimately exhaust themselves, overshoot their capacity.