How Engineering – Not Wishful Thinking – Will Help Solve The World’s Problems

- Feb 21, 2019-

The world is in the middle of an era of unprecedented change. And that is both exciting and challenging.

Governments and businesses alike face many pressing issues, from creating a zero-carbon economy, to addressing issues created by population growth and urbanization, to preparing workers of all kinds for an increasingly automated future. No single solution will resolve the economic, technological or societal challenges we face; rather, a combination of many practical solutions implemented in tandem will enable sustained change.

At Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Group, we as scientists and engineers have a specific approach: seeking solutions rooted in facts, data and today’s realities to develop innovative products that will work for the good of all.

A little hard work and an evidence-based approach to problem solving and engineering can help organizations of all types and sizes uncover practical, realistic solutions.

Addressing the low-carbon energy “present”

As an example, discussion on climate change to date has largely focused on renewable energy as the key pathway to a low-carbon energy future. The drive to develop renewable energy sources is a crucial one; however, evidence also demonstrates that achieving a low or zero-carbon future requires a multi-faceted approach.

For instance, wind and solar power generators will at times produce too much or too little energy, since it is impossible to regulate when the sun shines or the wind blows. Switching to renewable energy sources therefore involves serious considerations, like overcoming intermittency and ensuring energy security, as well as balancing the potential costs of such sources.

Elsewhere, much emphasis has been placed on batteries as a means of storing surplus energy, but there are other ways of solving storage issues, such as redistributing power based on the needs of the population. Power-to-X technologies enable surplus energy generated by renewables to be stored and redeployed when and where it is needed.

For example, power-to-mobility systems can use this extra energy to charge electric vehicles, allowing any surplus to be stored and then fed back into the main grid. This solution solves for many fiscal and logistical challenges of the new energy grid, while also preventing similar problems from emerging as energy consumption increases over the next century.

It is also important to remember that, despite the growing importance of renewables to the world’s power generating capacity, demand is still expected to be met by coal, oil and gas in 2050. The global energy industry is still creating the building blocks of a low-carbon future, and that means fossil fuels need to be made cleaner and more efficient today.

Carbon capture and storage technology – which isolates CO2 from industrial plants at the source, preventing harmful emissions entering the Earth’s atmosphere – is an excellent example of this. That captured CO2 can be stored or used in industrial applications, such as in oil extraction or the production of dry ice and other chemicals.

Redefining fuel for a new age

The wave of innovation, however, does not end with preventative techniques – businesses may be practical, yet it is never enough to accept the status quo. The public and private sectors need to constantly seek out and deliver credible renewable energy solutions that can help to transform the future energy landscape.

The use of hydrogen in this context is a powerful example of how science is driving innovation in the energy industry. The U.S. Department of Energyhas stated that because hydrogen fuel creates exhaust made of hot air and water vapor, it is carbon-neutral, drastically reducing the impact it has on the environment.

In turn, mixing hydrogen into our fuel sources can dramatically reduce emissions without disrupting generating capacity. This year, a new large-scale gas turbine using a 30 percent hydrogen fuel mix was successfully tested, reducing CO2 emissions by 10 percent. A trial is now underway in Groningen, the Netherlands, at Vattenfall’s Magnum power plant, where Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems is working to convert an existing gas-fired power plant to hydrogen.

These pilot programs and experiments bring the world’s mission of becoming a low-carbon economy closer to reality, while ensuring that no fuel source or potential solution is eliminated as the world undergoes this complex energy transition.

Using multiple routes to deliver change

All these technologies need to be developed in parallel if the world’s future energy needs are to be met. The same is true of the transport sector and e-mobility in particular. Currently, the rise of electric cars dominates global media headlines and would appear to be a standalone answer to air pollution. Cleaner individual cars are certainly a positive innovation, but they are not the only solution.

Air taxis, buses, intelligent traffic systems, a greater use of regional jets andautomated transit systems will all have a role in reducing congestion.

In the megacities of the future, a complex symphony of technologies will need to work together to ensure convenience and sustainability. Transport networks and strong infrastructures that can be built quickly and maintained over long periods of time will serve as important bases for e-mobility, enabling unscaled and individual transportation solutions to thrive.

Waste not, want not

Another global challenge facing governments around the world is the cost and environmental pressure associated with increasing household and industrial waste.

Experts predict that at current growth rates, the human race could generate 11 million tons of solid waste each day by 2100. Adopting the Japanese mindset of mottainai is with the perfect mindset to addressing this forecasted rise in waste. In essence, mottainai involves having respect for resources so they are used with gratitude and not exploited.

Since levels of waste are expected to increase over the next century, how can businesses and governments invoke the principles of mottainai, all while providing for society’s needs? Science, once again, can provide a practical answer. Waste-to-energy technology allows energy to be generated from nearly every form of waste matter: solid waste, semi-solid waste discharged from urban incinerators or industrial plants, liquid waste like domestic sewage and gas waste produced in refineries.

Heat, too, is often wasted during industrial processes; converting it into energy gives energy producers a significant opportunity to improve efficiency while reducing emissions.

These are just a few examples of how science and engineering are addressing some of the world’s most pressing problems in an honest and pragmatic way.

Amid all these visionary ideas in the energy, transportation and power sectors, one thing is clear; no single solution has all the answers. The onus is on companies and governments to create the numerous innovations needed to work harmoniously alongside each other to deliver the practical solutions that the world needs.

This article was first published on the World Economic Forum and is part of the Annual Meeting 2019.