Examples of Ecological Engineering Patents

Patent Title


Patent Number

Method for treating wastewater using microorganisms and vascular aquatic plants

W. C. Wolverton


Water purification system and apparatus

W. H. Adey


Algal turf scrubber

W. H. Adey


Ecological fluidized bed method for the treatment of polluted water

J. H. Todd J. M. Shaw


Method for treating water

Solar aquatic apparatus for treating waste

J. H. Todd B. Silverstein J. H. Todd B. Silverstein

5,389,257 5,087,353

which are part living in terms of biological populations and part nonliving in terms of containment structure, pumps, pipes, etc. "Products of nature" are not supposed to be patentable, but in the case of ecological engineering systems, constructed ecosystems are patentable. There are similarities here with patenting of genetic engineering or biotechnology designs (Adler, 1984), where patents are assigned to organisms whose genetic code has been altered by humans for useful purposes. However, it may be even more interesting or contentious in ecological engineering because of the role of self-organization in creating designs. Should the patent rights for a constructed ecosystem be given to a human inventor if nature is responsible for a significant portion of the design? Perhaps a legal statute is needed for at least a sharing of profits from an ecological engineering design with some monies going to the human inventor and some going back to nature in the form of feedbacks supporting biodiversity.

The general method of ecological engineering is not patented and it can be used by anyone to construct a useful ecosystem. Basically, the method is to construct a containment system which includes the problem to be solved (eroded shoreline or waste stream) and to over-seed it with biodiversity. Self-organization will create an appropriate ecosystem for the given boundary conditions that will solve the problem over time. Self-organization can be accelerated by the human designer by seeding with species preadapted to the specific problem. The role of self-organization in this process is in selecting useful species for the identified problem. This is similar to the role ascribed to indigenous peoples in selecting species useful to pharmaceutical companies in medical drug production (Cunningham, 1991; Greaves, 1994).


It may seem strange to conclude a chapter on economics with the subject of ethics; however, like economics, ethics is a guide to decision making. Ethics is a system of beliefs that provide self-imposed limitations on the freedom to act. Formal codes of ethics or conduct exist for engineers who become members of professional societies or who become licensed by engineering boards. These codes provide guidance to engineers, especially in terms of understanding the consequences of their actions on the health and safety of humans. While this role for ethics in engineering is well established, some believe that the ethical boundaries need to be expanded to include the environment (Gunn and Vesilind, 1986). The need for sustainability requires development of ethics that may be very difficult to achieve in the present-day society, which is often oriented towards growth and short-term objectives.

The new field of ecological engineering must develop its own code of ethics, from its own unique perspective. This will probably include traditional concerns for human health and safety, environmental ethics, sustainability, and perhaps a new respect for biodiversity, which provides an important component of ecological engineering designs. In terms of a concern for biodiversity, engineers might look to ideas on Biophilia or the philosophical connections between humans and all other forms of life (Wilson, 1984). The list of "78 reasonable questions to ask about any technology" given by Mills (1997) might be a good starting point for ethical developments in any engineering discipline. An ecological engineering code of ethics based on ethics of computer hackers is suggested in Chapter 9.

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