The Need for Green Engineering

17 December 2009

Ian Bell MEng MIE, market development manager, Industrial Embedded, National Instruments argues the case for innovation in engineering to improve technologies, products and processes that can provide environmental benefits.

Following the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen there is renewed media, political and public interest in all things green. Despite what the vocal sceptics would have you believe, the world faces serious challenges from climate change. But the issues are not just limited to how we are impacting the world’s climate, security of energy supply and rapidly increasing costs also have to be faced.

Like putting a name to a face, as an engineer, I like to put real numbers on these challenges. So here are some sobering numbers. World energy consumption is around 11,294,500,000 tons of oil equivalents (TOE) and the UK share of that in 2008 was 212,000,000 TOE according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. Some sources calculate that world has used 1006 billion barrels of oil and that there is a little less than this left in the ground. In other words, we have passed “peak oil”. Whilst these figures are fiercely debated, there is no doubt that most of the easily accessible oil has been used and future reserves will be more difficult to access, they are deeper or in more challenging environments. The UK target for energy generation from renewable sources is 15% by 2020, with an interim target of 10% in 2010. In 2008, the proportion was just 2.3%.

Energy demand is only going to increase. World population continues to increase, and more of the world aspires to a western-style, energy hungry lifestyle. But when we are faced with this stark future, why aren’t we adopting solutions more quickly. One reason could be the “endowment effect”. As a rule of thumb a new technology needs to be twice as good, 10%-20% improvements will not persuade most people to change.

The key to fixing these problems is engineering, and more specifically green engineering. Green engineering is defined as the use of measurement and control techniques to design, develop and improve products, technologies and processes, resulting in environmental and economic benefits. As the eminent 19th century physicist and engineer, Lord Kelvin, noted “If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it”. Measurements both in the lab and in the field are crucial. And measurement technology lies at the heart of the advanced embedded control systems which are needed to deliver next generation renewable energy, cleaner traditional energy and more efficient energy use in industry.

What we need is a period of rapid innovation. We need technology platforms that enable rapid innovation. The National Instruments graphical system design platform combines rapid application development using the NI LabVIEW graphical programming language, with CPU/FPGA-based COTS hardware such as CompactRIO and a wide range of modular I/O to enable green engineers to rapidly prototype then deploy their proven innovations.

The deployment of new green engineering technologies is inevitable. Commenting in 2000 the ex Saudi Arabian oil minister Sheik Yamani said "The Stone Age came to an end not for a lack of stones and the oil age will end, but not for a lack of oil.” Newer and better technologies will eventually make deep cuts in our dependence on fossil fuels. Green engineering is here to stay and many of the next generation will call themselves Green Engineers.

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