Engineering is all about solving problems – at least it used to be. With our planet in rapid decline, engineers have a new role to play. Today, expectations go beyond problem-solving to delivering solutions that could quite literally save our planet.
The Engineering Council appears to be fully behind this revised role, believing that their work is influenced by the opportunities and challenges that sustainability brings. With the profession's knowledge and skills, they're potentially the providers of options and solutions which will maximise social value and minimise environmental impact.
Innovative engineering has the potential to drive significant progress against critical benchmarks for success: the UN's Sustainability Goals, the UK's ambitious net-zero target, and the greatly anticipated 'green recovery'. And at the heart of it all is sustainable engineering.
UNESCO defines sustainable engineering as the process of using resources in a way that does not compromise the environment or deplete what is available for future generations.
So what does sustainable engineering mean in practice?
According to the Engineering Council, engineers have a stewardship role when it comes to the planet's finite resources. Designing and using products, processes, and services with the lowest possible consumption and considering the whole life cycle from design, manufacture, and use to end-of-life waste management, should be a standard approach to every project.
Adopting strategies to reduce waste through re-use, recycling, and repurposing is vital. And pursuing regenerative outcomes to redress past damage is critical.
The Sandestin Declaration, which sets out the 9 Principles of Green Engineering*, underpins this:
- Engineer processes and products holistically, use systems analysis and integrate environmental impact assessment tools.
- Conserve and improve natural ecosystems while protecting human health and well-being.
- Use lifecycle thinking in all engineering activities.
- Ensure all material and energy inputs and outputs are as inherently safe and benign as possible.
- Minimise depletion of natural resources.
- Strive to prevent waste.
- Develop and apply engineering solutions while being cognizant of local geography, aspirations, and cultures.
- Create engineering solutions beyond current or dominant technologies; improve, innovate, and invent (technologies) to achieve sustainability.
- Actively engage communities and stakeholders in the development of engineering solutions.
*Abraham, M.; Nguyen, N. "Green engineering: Defining principles" – Results from the Sandestin conference. Environmental Progress 2004, 22, 233-236.DOI: 10.1002/ep.670220410
And what does it look like in reality?
Innovation holds the key to engineering solutions that deliver societal benefits, mitigate environmental challenges and contribute to reversing the damage already done. Here's some inspiration from engineers putting it into practice:
Boosting crop production with seawater
The Seawater Greenhouse uses the cooling and humidifying abilities of water vapour produced from evaporating saltwater. Modelling software is used to simulate the growing environment and optimise the design. The technology takes advantage of two abundant resources – sunlight and seawater. It offers a green solution to boosting crop production and enabling climate rehabilitation while minimising the associated issues and costs.
Energy-supplying solar glass
Solar glass could change the way we create homes and commercial buildings. Researchers at the University of Michigan are developing solar glass, a sustainable engineering project that has generated a lot of buzz in recent years. The solar glass would capture and store solar energy, and according to the research team, 5 to 7 billion square metres of usable window space exists, enough to power a full 40% of US energy needs using solar glass.
From fog to drinking water
Created by Aqualonis, CloudFisher could allow people living in coastal or mountainous areas to convert fog into safe drinking water. The water could also be used to irrigate crops or for forestry efforts. It's made from a 3D mesh that can withstand high wind speeds while still retaining water. It comes in a variety of sizes to suit individual needs or the needs of an entire village. The green innovation example is already being used to help people around the world.
Find more inspiration at https://www.distrelec.de/current/en/robotics/10-engineering-innovations-powering-a-more-sustainable-future/ and https://interestingengineering.com/21-sustainability-innovations-that-might-just-change-the-world
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