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The Forum > Article Comments > Who’d have believed it? Engineers advocating non-technical solutions > Comments

Who’d have believed it? Engineers advocating non-technical solutions : Comments

By Eric Claus, published 9/8/2005

Eric Claus argues engineers are finally thinking in terms of sustainable non-technical solutions to technical problems.

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The article is a bit tough on engineers.
They have never all been totally concentrated on provision of gizmos under the direction of economic enthusiasts. Although sure, plenty have been employed on rearranging deck chairs rather than the less well-paid job of iceberg detection. It is good news that there now appears to be some ascendancy for the latter.
Anticipation of engineers developing something to replace cheap fossil fuels is fanciful. Though some engineers are sure to be starry-eyed enough to believe that to be achievable. Unlimited cheap energy is alien to our sustainability.
Humanity discovered the unalloyed joys of fossil fuels to the full only two centuries back. With the same attitude as hunter-gatherer forbears in coming across a stranded whale, enthusiastic plunder got under way without restraint. Now we contemplate the fossil-fuel carcass. It is going off, the heat of decomposition polluting the atmosphere, and depletion is apparent.
Should engineers find "another whale" for us, that would not provide "sustainability" for affluence at the standard to which most of us aspire. Not for the world's coming 9 billion, not even for the present 6.5 billion, nor be enabling for Australia's present numbers. It would merely enable continuance of degradation of the environment, the biodiversity, upon which our economic system is ultimately dependent. Accordingly, it is great news that those engineers who look beyond the quick technical fix are being elevated in their own ranks. We need them to help make the best of a long period of adjustment towards a leaner existence.
Posted by colinsett, Tuesday, 9 August 2005 1:05:52 PM
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Its a very nicely written essay. I am an Engineer by training myself so I always enjoy an engineering perspective.

Two basic points of fact:-

1. Our future supplies of oil may be uncertain but we have loads and load of economical coal reserves.

2. Fraud is not caused by free markets. The soviet union suffered fraud. Governments engage in fraud. Church officials can be fraudulent. Fraud is caused by human nature, not by free markets. Fraud is the desire to take what does not belong to you coupled with opportunity and a failure of character.

I look at clever energy ideas such as those being pioneered by Enviromission and I think that good old fashion engineering innovation still has an awful lot to offer in the way of global solutions.

The other thing about the 15 boxes story is that even though engineers tend to ignore the non-technical problems we should not necessarily conclude that others working on solutions in these areas are necessarily wiser. A lot of energy gets wasted implementing solutions that are little better than the problem they propose to solve. Sometimes it is better to leave alone. Or as an engineer would say "if it ain't broke, don't fix it"
Posted by Terje, Thursday, 11 August 2005 8:48:31 PM
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Thanks Terje

I agree fraud is not caused by the Free market. In fact pollution isn't either. There was plenty of pollution in the socialist Eastern Europe. What I was trying to say is that there is a place for government intervention, for example with issues like fraud and pollution.

With respect to there being plenty of cheap coal, there is about 3.5 times as many TeraJoules of coal reserves as oil reserves. On the surface then, you might say "well if oil and natural gas run out in 40 years," then we have 135 years of coal (in general terms but you get the idea). When Oil and natural gas go, some energy source will need to fill in or we will need to use a lot less energy. That would mean that coal has to do 3 jobs and would therefore last one third of the remaining 95 years (32 years or 72 more years).

Unfortuneately, the coal powered car is not near the top of the 'to do' list for even the most imaginative engineers. That means conversion to liquids or electricity. That means TeraJoules must be sacrificed due to the inefficiencies of converting to liquids or electricity. That means the 32 years might get cut in half to 16 (56 years total). It is obviously a lot more complicated than this due to the changing prices and increasing demand, etc. but even so, it is silly for society to think that coal will last forever.

I agree wholeheartedly that we need to encourage engineers to come up with technical solutions and that others working on solutions are not always better. In fact I could probably bip out 2000 words on that subject in no time. Thanks for your comments.

Colin - Engineers are my heroes. I wish more would take it up.
Posted by ericc, Friday, 12 August 2005 11:14:15 PM
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I think there are lots of technical options for cars if oil gets too scarce.

1. Hybrid electric cars will save fuel.
2. Fuel cells may do the same.
3. Ethanol will avoid the need for fossil fuels.

Of these three I think that 1 and 3 are already quite viable. I can see us driving Ethanol hybrid electrics in 20 years time without too much of an engineering revolution.

Over time I can see the Solar Chimney ( giving us relatively cheap baseload electricity from the sun. A test plant in Spain in the 1980s operated for seven years and more than proved the concept.

I think wind farms are a menace. They are noisey and above a certain threshold contribution they will destabilise the electrical grid.

We will make some mistakes but I don't think our children face a doomed planet
Posted by Terje, Saturday, 13 August 2005 2:51:57 PM
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I am also a tinkerer that likes a practical problem to solve but on the molecular scale being trained as a molecular plant breeder.

What technologist usually don’t get any credit for is the unintended benefits that arise from large scale engineering projects. By application of engineering ‘over-kill’ to a practical problem society as a whole might benefit tremendously.

Your reference to the ‘technology fix’ to the cholera epidemics along the Banks of the Thames in the 1850s is a salient example. The English medical fraternity firmly believed that it was the odour arising from decomposing organic waste that was causing disease. The odours emanating from the Thames became unbearable in the summer of 1858, giving rise to ‘The Great Stink’, which prompted the Parliament to commission an engineer, Joseph Bazalgette, to lead the mammoth engineering task of diverting the foul smelling open sewerage canals into underground sewerage tunnels.

A year after the opening of the sewers the air quality but also the water quality had improved and it was finally discovered that it was the water that carried the disease.

A more recent example of ‘spin offs’ comes from the NASA Space program. The single minded purpose of putting a (white American) man on the moon pales into insignificance when compared to the spin off technologies this roundly criticised project (as captured in that proto- rap beat‘ Whitey on the Moon’ by Gil-Scott Heron) gave rise to.

The laser guided missile and the kevlar bullet proof vest but also the microwave oven, pacemaker batteries that last for 20 years, the mobile phone and of course the PC that I am typing this comment on all came about as a result of the NASA Space program.

A healthy degree of single minded pursuit and tinkering thus is essential for developing the modern conveniences that we take for granted. Technological advance and more prudent use of our limited natural resources need to go hand in hand. If engineers embrace sustainable thinking I hope that environmentalists can reciprocally acknowledge that technology at least sometimes can be put to good use.
Posted by sten, Tuesday, 16 August 2005 10:15:44 AM
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Terje -

I don’t think our kids are “doomed” either, but they are in for some very significant lifestyle changes.

Regarding ethanol hybrids, there are still a lot of technological improvements that need to be made and even then we can’t support the levels of petrol we are currently using. Currently we can get about 3100 Litres of ethanol from a hectare of corn. That requires fuel for ploughing, planting and harvesting and natural gas based fertilisers that eat up half of that, if we are very efficient. Petrol has 1.4 times as much energy per litre as ethanol so one hectare of corn provides the equivalent of about 1100 Litres of petrol that can be used for transport fuel.

About 4500 billion litres of crude oil are refined each year and most of that is refined for transport fuels. Assuming we could get by with 3000 billion litres of transport fuel because of the efficiency of the hybrids, we would still need 2.7 billion hectares of crop land to grow the corn. Right now the world has only about 2.0 billion hectares of crop land and it is needed to provide food.

There is work being done on using other types of vegetation that will not require extra fuel and fertiliser and won’t need to displace existing cropland. The cellulosic waste from sugarcane, corn and forestry products are all being considered, but it is hard to get a good ethanol from them. Maybe improvements in technology will help, but so will stabilising the population, riding a bike and taking public transport. As Ian Lowe says it will take both technological solutions and changes to our values and social institutions, to get us through to a sustainable society.

Sten - I think most environmentalists agree that we need technology and improvements in technology to be sustainable. There are not enough caves for all of us to go back to a simpler lifestyle. Keep tinkering. Every little breakthough helps.
Posted by ericc, Thursday, 18 August 2005 11:49:47 AM
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