From a purely engineering perspective, all real world problems are solvable. Nobody would choose to be a design engineer unless they deeply believed in their own ability to solve problems through creativity and a deliberate methodology – identify the problem, analyse it, build a prototype, test it, iterate, deliver the solution.
In the real world, of course, the challenges are much more difficult. Social, political and economic considerations prevail, often ruling out the elegant solutions that an engineering approach would suggest.
Let me give you an example: climate change. The problem is clear: global temperatures are rising, ice sheets are melting and oceans are acidifying. The analysis is clear: human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels for energy, are leading to rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and are driving the problem. The imperative is clear: cut emissions – and do it quickly.
The pure engineering solution would involve massive installations of solar and wind, backed up by natural gas turbines, hydrogen storage, pumped hydro storage and battery storage to handle the intermittency, and investment in new hydroelectric and nuclear electricity generation.
“The challenge for engineers when it comes to these large-scale, socially complex issues is to work closely with colleagues across the humanities and social sciences to build solutions that communities can and will take forward.”
Once the existing electricity supply is decarbonised, the amount of low emissions electricity generated would be doubled or tripled so that liquid fossil fuels for transport and natural gas for heating could be rapidly replaced by low emissions electricity.
If only human affairs were so straightforward!
The challenge for engineers when it comes to these large-scale, socially complex issues is to work closely with colleagues across the humanities and social sciences to build solutions that communities can and will take forward.
But not all challenges are as wicked as climate change. The engineering method delivers handsomely in the corporate world, most often in collaboration with marketing, psychology and customer support systems. Smartphones, automobiles, improved building technologies and advanced materials are just some of the myriad examples.
The engineering method is also very applicable to organisational management. The evidence based, non-ideological problem solving approach of engineering can serve leaders from the shop floor to the corporate board.
When it comes to politics, in some countries (such as Germany) engineers are highly valued. But in Australia, they’re far less visible. I don’t know why that is so, but perhaps we need to be teaching charisma as a graduate attribute in Australian engineering faculties.
At the very least, we should be making crystal clear to our engineering students their opportunity to contribute to society outside of their profession.
Australia’s Chief Scientist
Read next: Dr Anna Lavelle, CEO and Executive Director of AusBiotech on Innovation in Australian life sciences.
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We can expect to be manufacturing and exporting cheap, lightweight solar cells (electrical devices that convert light energy into electricity) to the rest of the world by 2019, taking renewable energy to remote and off-grid communities such as emergency refugee camps.
This prediction came from Professor David Officer, head of the polymer solar cell program at the CRC for Polymers (CRC-P), which is developing design and manufacturing processes for commercially viable polymer solar cells based on a light-sensitive dye.
Officer described the cells as a “people’s technology” for the future. His optimism is based on patents recently secured by the CRC-P for components that will provide a competitive edge over other consortia developing similar cells. CEO Dr Ian Dagley said CRC-P researchers have also pioneered new cost-effective manufacturing techniques that, for commercial reasons, currently remain secret.
Polymer cells exploit the same photovoltaic principle as silicon- and glass-based rooftop solar panels. Unlike those bulky panels, however, polymer cells are flexible and lightweight and, as a result, can be incorporated onto a wide range of surfaces – from walls to sunshades. Transparent versions can even be used in windows. They can also operate indoors, enabling electricity recycling.
Crucially, however, polymer cells are considerably cheaper to manufacture. Silicon cells, for example, require expensive equipment and carefully controlled conditions, while the polymer product can be produced in minutes with minimal labour using reel-to-reel printers, presenting new opportunities for Australian manufacturing. Officer estimated that, using methods developed by the CRC-P, polymer cells can be produced that cost no more than 50 cents per watt – that’s less than half the price to which the silicon solar cell industry aspires.
Dye-sensitised solar cells first created much excitement when they were invented 23 years ago, but have failed to deliver commercially on their early promise. So far, only one company – Wales-based G24 Power – is manufacturing the cells, and only on a small scale.
A key obstacle has been the cost of materials. “We’ve been trying to develop a cost-effective solution to producing the solar cells using inexpensive materials, some of which we’ve made ourselves and can scale up quite easily,” explained Dagley.
The CRC has achieved its materials and fabrication advances through a collaboration of expertise across five partner institutions: the University of Wollongong – where Officer developed new techniques that synthesise cheap organic dyes – the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation and the Universities of Newcastle, Queensland and NSW.
The CRC-P is investigating opportunities with sufficiently large markets to make manufacturing the cells cost-effective, which Officer said has been another obstacle to commercialisation. One contender is in horticulture, where transparent cells incorporated into greenhouses could power cooling and water pumps. The cells may even be able to promote plant growth by transmitting only beneficial wavelengths of light.
– Jude Dineley