Grand challenges of engineering for the 21st Century
Professor of Water and Environmental Engineering,
School of Engineering;
Western Sydney University;
NSW 2751, Australia
Engineers have solved many challenges and shaped everyday lives of the society. Innovation and problem solving is what engineers are good at. In the changing world of technologies and strained natural resources call for solution to multiple challenges the society is facing. Climate change is damaging the world at a faster rate than before due to increased population and economic activities.
Advances in technologies not only makes our lives easier but also provides us with ever increasing opportunities and challenges. For example, data is generated at a faster rate than it could be analysed and put to use. While the rich becomes richer, poor increasingly becomes poorer and access to clean water is becoming difficult to achieve. Under these circumstances, engineers have to prepare themselves to solve non-traditional problems. To help future and current engineers understand future challenges, National Academy of Engineering (NAE) asked many leading experts around the world for their views and collated fourteen grand challenges that engineers have to resolve in the near future. Understanding these challenges are important for professional engineers to find opportunities within their expertise. Hence, two of these are summarised below with appropriate link for readers to understand full breadth of challenges.
Make solar energy economical
Solar energy is the most abundant and free resource on earth. Even if we capture 0.01% of the solar energy falling on earth that is sufficient to meet the all current energy demands. However, the capturing and using this energy is met with many hurdles. Most importantly we cannot use all the energy at the time of capture meaning some electrical energy storage system is needed and is very expensive. This implies that a cheaper storage system is needed.
There are promising alternatives, such as pumping water during the day and use the head to generate electricity in the night or to take inspiration from plants to store the energy in chemical form. All have their own problems that needs to be resolved. Secondly the efficiency of the solar panels after a many years of work has climbed to only 20% although there are some advances to increase the efficiency through material science. Thirdly the issues associated with the network when the excess solar energy is pumped to the grid. More information for the interested engineers can be found from NAE or other websites.
Provide access to clean water
It is no secret that world population is facing challenges in accessing the clean water. One every six living people do not have access to clean water and about two in every six people do not have access to proper sanitation. Experts believe this has contributed to the deaths of about 5,000 children from diarrhoea related diseases.
It is not we don’t have enough water but water is not always available where it is needed the most. For example, only 3% of total water available on earth is fresh and out of most are locked in ice. Canada is blessed with much water resources but Middle Eastern countries cannot access the fresh water resources and have to desalinate salt water. Excessive use of ground water has resulted in ground water depletion, land subsidence, and salt water intrusion making this resource no longer available. In other places the ground water is overly contaminated with heavy metals such as arsenic making it not suitable for consumption or increase the cost of construction. Climate change induced uneven weather pattern with heavy rain fall in shorter period or longer period of drought make it harder to capture and use the rain water.
Water scarcity can be solved in two ways: reducing the water demand and increasing the supply. In increasing the supply, the most common approach is to desalinate water but is very expensive and energy consuming. In addition, water can only be accessed by coastal towns due to difficulty in transportation. It therefore implies most water stressed and poor countries cannot access the desalination as the technology of choice. The next approach is to recycle wastewater and recharge them back to the ground or augment the drinking water reservoirs. Recycled water is met with psychological and technological (difficulty in removing all harmful chemicals) challenges leaving more room for technological innovation. Other promising technologies include distillation, rain water harvesting for clean water consumption and capturing of water from the air etc.
The next challenge is to reduce the water demand in agriculture which accounts for approximately 70-80% of a country’s water consumption. The drip irrigation is one of the alternatives and promising technologies.
For a complete list of fourteen grand engineering challenges please visit the link below: