How are engineers contributing to a sustainable future?

With the Royal Academy of Engineering’s National Engineering Day (1st November) focusing on the theme of engineering for sustainability, we take a look at some of the inspiring engineers we have worked with, whose research, inventions and discoveries are contributing to a more sustainable society and a brighter future.

Civil engineering

Dr Alice Alipour is a civil engineer, working in the branch of engineering that focuses on the design and construction of infrastructure, such as buildings, roads and bridges. She is leading a team of engineers from a range of disciplines who are designing smart façades for buildings. These will allow the exterior of a building to change shape and colour to adapt to changing weather conditions. For example, on hot sunny days, the façade can provide shade and turn a lighter colour to reflect heat from the sun, thereby reducing the energy required for cooling.

Electrical engineer Professor Rukmi Dutta (right) is improving the efficiency of electric motors © M. Gao

Mechanical engineering

To reduce our dependence on fossils fuels, we need to increase energy production from sustainable sources. Professor Jennifer Franck is creating a device to harness the immense power of ocean tides and transform this into a sustainable electricity supply.

Electronics engineering

Increasing our production of renewable energy will help to reduce our carbon emissions, yet up to 10% of all renewable energy generated is wasted before it even reaches your phone, laptop or lightbulbs. At each stage of transporting this electricity, from wind farm to National Grid to your house to your phone, a small amount of electricity is wasted as it heats up the transistors it travels through. If we could make these transistors more efficient, less energy would be wasted, which is why Professor Peter Gammon is developing transistors made of silicon carbide.

Electrical engineering

The transport industry is a significant contributor to carbon dioxide emissions. Reducing these emissions requires replacing petrol-powered transportation with electric versions. Professor Rukmi Dutta is improving the efficiency of the electric motors used in electric vehicles. Drawing on inspiration from bridge designs, she has innovatively redesigned the electric motor so it can perform at higher speeds without becoming damaged.

Aviation engineering

The aviation industry is infamous for its contribution to climate change. “If aviation was a country, its carbon dioxide emissions would be the same as those of Japan,” says Dr Thomas Budd, who specialises in aviation sustainability. Thomas is investigating whether hydrogen can be used as a zero-emissions fuel for aircraft. However, adopting new ‘clean’ fuels will require a lot of changes in the aviation industry, including to the design and operation of aircraft and the methods used to handle and refuel them at airports. “Because there is currently such a focus on aviation sustainability, it’s a really exciting time to be thinking about a career in this sector!” says Thomas.

Aeronautical engineering

Aeronautical engineers are also changing the design of aircraft to improve fuel efficiency and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Dr Punsara Navaratna and Dr Alessandro Pontillo are using wind tunnels and computer models to explore the potential of making aircraft wings longer, thinner and more flexible. And their research into flexible-winged aircraft can also be applied to the long, thin blades of wind turbines, highlighting how aircraft testing and modelling techniques can be extended to other applications to improve sustainability.

Materials science and process engineering

“Cement is the most manufactured commodity in the world,” says Dr Theodore Hanein. It is vital for society as it is needed to produce concrete, which is an essential construction material. However, producing cement and concrete requires vast amounts of natural resources and releases huge quantities of carbon dioxide. If concrete was a country, it would be the world’s third largest emitter of carbon dioxide! So, Theo is investigating whether the cement-making process can be altered by using waste products from other industries as the raw materials for cement production. This would have the double benefit of cutting down carbon dioxide emissions and reducing the waste produced by other sectors.

Low carbon engineering

Dr Danielle Densley Tingley is also investigating how to reduce the carbon footprint of the construction industry. She is researching strategies that could use a circular economy to improve the sustainability of buildings, by reusing and recycling building materials.

Control engineering

Half of the world’s accessible fresh water is used in large-scale irrigation for our food and natural fibre production. Population growth, climate change and rising standards of living are all increasing the demands for water. However, globally, less than 60% of the water diverted into irrigation networks is used productively. Outdated infrastructure and manual operating practices mean that over 40% of water is lost as it is transported to farmers’ fields. Professor Michael Cantoni is leading a team of control engineers who have created an automated irrigation system that automatically adjusts water supply to more efficiently meet demand.

Biological engineering

The world currently relies on plastics for everything from food packaging to everyday household objects, as they are cheap to make and versatile to use. However, plastics have a long-lasting environmental impact and result in a huge amount of waste and pollution. Professor Jeffrey Catchmark is experimenting to test whether plant-based plastic alternatives could be used for sustainable food packaging.

Chemical engineering

Dr Yamil Colón is studying the chemical process of adsorption and developing new adsorbent materials. These adsorbents will provide a wealth of environmental benefits, from improving the carbon capture process to mitigate the effects of climate change, to removing pollutants from contaminated water sources.

Ocean engineering

Nitrous oxide (N2O) is a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. The ocean is a significant source of N2O, but there is currently no easy way to measure how much N2O is dissolved in and released from seawater. Dr Anuscheh Nawaz and her team are combining their expertise in mechanical, electrical and chemical engineering and oceanography to develop a technique to measure the concentration of dissolved N2O in the ocean.

Humanitarian engineering

Increasing sustainability is not just about protecting the planet, it also means ensuring that everyone has access to a safe environment and equal opportunities. Across Peru, thousands of people do not have access to clean water or efficient transport links. Dr Davis Chacon-Hurtado is using a human rights-based approach to engineering to solve these problems. He is investigating the connection between poor transport links and social inequality, and bringing sanitation to a remote community in the Andes.

With a career in engineering, how could you contribute to a sustainable future?

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