Engineers and scientists -- including social scientists -- need to work together and urgently to address 14 engineering challenges identified as crucial to Earth's future last year by the National Academy of Engineering, said academy director Charles Vest in a March 2 kickoff address at the Durham Performance Arts Center during the first session of a summit on those problems.
Panels of experts have compartmentalized those challenges into six broad areas, Vest said at the two-day event, hosted by Duke University, the University of Southern California's Viterbi School of Engineering and Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. Those include energy use, addressing global warming, maintaining sustainability, delivering health care, security against human and natural threats, and developing ways to enhance human capability and joy.
Speaking as a snowstorm was moving up the East Coast and the stock market continued to nosedive in a face of dire and worldwide economic news, Vest remained upbeat. "I believe this is the most exciting time in human history to be engaged with science and engineering," he said. But to harness that excitement, engineering educators also need to revamp curricula to lure more socially committed youth to major in engineering, he added.
A. Paul Alivisatos, the interim director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said he has noticed a startling turnaround of student interest in helping resolve such issues as climate change and such consequences as the potential for geopolitical conflict due to competition for water, land and other resources.
Alivisatos concentrated on another hot button issue, energy use, which he said contrary to public perception does not always increase as nations get wealthier. For example, the State if California's overall energy use actually held steady when compared to domestic outputs after new state standards stimulated new industry innovations in refrigerator efficiencies.
Alivasatos, who replaced Nobel Laureate Steven Chu at Lawrence Berkeley after Chu became Energy Secretary, also described new research efforts to boost efficiencies of collecting the sun's energy by developing solar cells made of nanocrystals or plastics and temporarily storing that energy in molecules like Nature does in photosynthesis.
Robert Socolow, a professor of chemistry, materials science and nanoscience at Princeton University, said successes at building large scale power grids are considered the number one grand engineering achievement of the 20th century. But the goal for the 21st century is not to significantly expand that power capacity but rather improve the efficiency of what exists now with techniques such as recycling waste heat. Tapping nuclear fusion will be a "century-long challenge," and building more nuclear fission power plants a shorter one, Socolow predicted.
Meanwhile, technology is already being developed to remove carbon dioxide from industrial exhausts and store it underground so it can't contribute to global warming, he said. A new challenge will be to regulate the proliferation of nitrogen in a way analogous to CO2, perhaps by engineering more plants to produce it instead of relying on industrial fertilizers.