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Engineering the future: How can we improve mankind’s quality of life?

Engineering the future

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Given the reality of climate change and global warming, it’s tempting to admit defeat and assume we can’t do anything about the situation. There is much that can be done to ensure sustainability, but it’s going to take a lot more than switching off a few lights bulbs. Here we outline the potential ways we can improve everyone’s quality of life.

Making solar energy economical
Believe it or not, solar cells have been around since 1954, yet over 60 years later we’re still burning fossil fuels. This is mainly because current solar cell designs are very expensive, due to requiring high quality materials. China is currently dominating the solar energy industry, having installed a record 30 gigawatts of solar panels in the first half of 2016. So, the UK and other parts of the world have some catching up to do. Donald Trump has made his feelings clear in regards to renewables, believing it to be a bad investment, but the White House has little influence on how states deal with solar energy.

Engineers must find ways of improving the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of solar cells. A potential solution could involve using thicker materials in one dimension, for absorbing light and thinner materials in another direction, which charges would travel through. Fossil fuels won’t last forever so it’s crucial we prioritise making solar energy affordable.

Managing the nitrogen cycle
Although nitrogen is essential for life on earth, excessive amounts can severely damage the environment. Burning fossil fuels and putting more fertiliser than we need in our soils has disrupted the nitrogen cycle. The excess nitrogen can get into groundwater, so even basic things like drinking water can get contaminated. Research has shown that too much nitrogen contributes to climate change.

One solution for controlling the nitrogen cycle could be to create sustainable agriculture and to use organic waste in farming. Engineers will need to ensure that food production remains the same while treating the human disruption of the nitrogen cycle. Also, awareness of the issues will need to be made clearer among farmers, as excess nitrogen leaks out of various stages in the farming process. It’s human activities that are damaging the environment, so engineers must better manage these activities.

Carbon capture and storage
Engineers are looking for ways to prevent global warming by capturing and storing carbon dioxide. Otherwise known as sequestration, it is the process of removing carbon from the atmosphere. With the emergence of the Paris agreement, plans for carbon capture and storage (CSS) has accelerated. The agreement commits nations to keeping temperatures below 2C.

Some methods already exist for carbon sequestration, such as using absorption towers. These towers would absorb the carbon dioxide from other gases and separate it from the chemicals, allowing them to be reused. Another proposed method of carbon dioxide storage is in sediments beneath the ocean floor. However, the process is not well understood, but as modern technologies develop over time, engineers may be able to find ways of injecting carbon dioxide into the ocean that would lock it permanently to sedimentary rocks.

Self-driving cars
Driverless cars offer tremendous potential to improve our lifestyles by reducing energy consumption. When you are riding a self-driving car, the vehicle will operate the speed and acceleration and the result would be greater fuel efficiency. Self-driving vehicles are being tested all over the world, but are yet to officially hit the road. Driving for many is one of life’s little pleasures, but who knows? There are innumerable opportunities for people with self-driving cars, such as more freedom and independence. With automation becoming more prominent, self-driving vehicles could well be the future of transport.

Lab-grown food
Even food has a strong carbon footprint. Meat production is a major contributor to climate change, with the industry accounting for 15 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Companies like Beyond Meat and Hampton Creek Foods are starting to produce lab-grown meat to combat greenhouse gas emissions. It might seem like the stuff of sci-fi, but researchers say it could be healthier because the meat will be produced in controlled conditions away from bacteria. Growing meat in labs could lower the cost of production, it wouldn’t involve slaughtering animals and it would be able to sustain a growing human population.

So, there’s no doubt that engineers face big challenges in the future to safeguard the world from the effects of global warming. The engineers of tomorrow are likely to have access to more advanced technologies and engineering software, which will help make the goal of ensuring a sustainable future that much easier.

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