Engineers will save the world!

08 August 2009

There’s been plenty of political lip service paid to developing new so-called Green technologies but very little funding has backed this up. Martyn Day believes this is unfortunate as only engineers can save the planet

I recently attended a birthday party for a nine year old. On the adult table a conversation started about the pros and cons of global warming. The conversation went along the lines of ‘Britain will have a warm climate and will be able to grow crops like olives. However, the Maldives will be under two metres of water, that’s a shame’. One elderly guest bravely decided to counter the whole debate by suggesting the whole argument was flawed. ‘There is no such thing as global warming,’ she said, ‘it’s all made up’, backing this up with some ‘facts’ from her local vicar, which laid the blame on volcanoes and the fact that the earth was only 4,000 years old. Dinosaurs, the Mayans, Egyptians, Rome, Genghis Khan, Neil Armstrong to the Teletubbies and Michael Jackson in 400 centuries. Now that’s what I call progress!

It’s at these moments I usually feel compelled to launch into some massive diatribe about science versus religion but as this was a social gathering this time I decided to try a new tactic - one of explanation. Starting from first principles I explained where oil, gas and coal comes from, sedimentation, compression and how long they have taken to form.

I decided early on that mentioning evolution was a big ‘no no’ and skipped to the invention of the combustion engine, through which we will burn nearly all these fossilised/liquified plants and lifeforms that have existed for an eon on the planet in a space of some 300 years. Oh and while we are at it, we are cutting down the forests while expanding industrialised farming to feed the ever-growing population.
All this burning and removal of CO2-capturing trees is bound to have an impact on the carbon content of the atmosphere. But as it’s colourless, it’s hard to see. However you don’t have to look very far to find examples of engineering where our lack of awareness has caused similar global problems.

The refrigerator was invented in 1876 but used dangerous gasses such as ammonia. In 1931 Dupont refined the design by coming up with a non-poisonous gas called Freon, which was a hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC or CFCs for short) that eventually found its way into other popular products such as aerosols. In the 1980s CFCs were banned in the USA because it was discovered they were creating holes in the ozone layer at the poles and a global moratorium came into effect in 1996. Within 65 years of their usage, some months up to 70% of the ozone above Australia had been removed. The good news is that the Ozone hole has stabilised and is under repair but UV levels are still dangerous. Scientists predict the layer will only get back to pre 1980 levels by 2068!

So by advancing the technology of refrigeration alone, we impacted the planet in a major way, in a very short period of time. The concept that ‘little old us’ can’t be responsible for indirect terraforming is seriously not up for debate, whatever your religious beliefs. If you drive a car, switch on a light, eat food you are part of the problem. My own guilt here is growing as I write this, I have a
daily reminder of what an energy-whore I have become, constantly on the search for a plug socket to charge something up - a laptop, a phone, a camera, an iPod, the
list goes on.

All the problems we have require engineers to solve them, and this needs to happen in decades. But to do it we need the money and the commitment from those in charge

So what can be done? The current consensus is that all the predictions of global warming are coming out at the top-end of estimations. Despite some co-ordinated efforts under the Kyoto agreement, carbon levels have increased at 3% per year between 2000 and 2006. I am sure we have all seen the ice shelf collapses and heard about the Maldives’ search for a new homeland for its 386,000 inhabitants, as the majority of its land is less than one metre above sea level. According to increasing numbers of scientists, the tipping point is near, within the next 40 years and for many of us the coast will be just that bit, ummm, closer.

It seems governments talk about the Green issues while campaigning but rarely do anything when in power. Our own Mr. Brown is down on record as wanting to cut UK emissions by 80% by 2050 and thinks this will create 400,000 jobs over the next eight years.
We need British investment in innovative engineered solutions on a massive scale, similar to that which generated the Atom bomb or the Apollo space missions. We need to research and build the wind and water turbines, the solar arrays, and enhance geothermal and nuclear power.
We also have to design and manufacture efficient carbon capturing and sequestrating solutions, maybe even construct something to actively reflect sunlight. We would also need to get on and develop powerful, secure and reliable forms of renewable energy like Fusion. All the problems we have require engineers to solve them on a planetary scale, and this needs to happen in decades. But to do it we need the money and the commitment from those in charge.

At the kid’s party I didn’t end up convincing my listener, but then I wasn’t expecting to - her reliance on faith-based facts was too ingrained. However, I did convince myself that I should write more about how engineers are making a difference and can solve the core problems that unfortunately our somewhat blind use of technology has created.

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