Saving tomorrow's world: How the planet's environmental problems could be solved by technological innovation
Thursday 16 July 2009
This year's Bosch Technology Horizons Award, in association with The Independent and the Royal Academy of Engineering, gave young people in two age groups the chance to answer the question, "How can technology and engineering provide innovative solutions to today's global challenges?"
A total of 545 entries were received, with writers grappling with issues such as renewable energy, the global water shortage, and medical solutions to new diseases. Their essays also addressed the philosophical and public relations side of the engineer's role. As one of the judges, I was impressed by the combination of scientific understanding and writing flair exhibited by all 14 essays that made the shortlist in both age groups. In the 14-18 age group, Leon Zhang from Urmston Grammar School in Manchester took the first prize of £700, while in the 19-24 age group, Gavin Harper, in the second year of a PhD at Cardiff University, netted the top award of £1,000.
The Technology Horizons Award, now in its fourth year, encourages students to think creatively about the changes and challenges facing the world. The award also seeks to highlight the importance of technology and engineering to young people, and inspire more of them to choose these subjects for study at A level and university.
The winners attended a presentation ceremony at The Royal Academy of Engineering in London, hosted by former Tomorrow's World presenter Kate Bellingham, now President of Young Engineers, and featuring presentations from Andy Green, the RAF pilot who drove the Thrust supersonic car to a world record 763 mph in 1997, and Peter Fouquet, President of Bosch UK.
Winner, 14-18: Leon Zhang
Take this time to think, for just a moment. In the past second, one and a half acres of rainforest were cut down, destroying the homes of many species of wildlife. In the past minute, the energy used in the UK was equal to 313 million tons of oil, which we can never get back. In the past hour, 160 children died from lack of access to safe drinking water and sanitation.
Mother Earth is in deep trouble. And it is our duty to get her out.
The problems our Earth faces can affect us all. Melting polar ice caps, rising temperatures, the economic crisis – it seems we cannot escape them. The media has done its fair share emphasising the problem. Yet, there is a bright side. Our greatest strength as human beings is the ability to think. We can try to put a stop to these global dilemmas.
One prime example is finding solutions to water problems in developing countries such as Africa. In one of the hottest places on Earth, water is in scarce supply. Up to 250 million Africans could live in water-stressed areas by 2010, and more than 50 per cent of Africans suffer from water-related diseases such as cholera and infant diarrhoea. However, there are solutions. Engineering has already produced breakthroughs. By pressurising sea water to produce vapour jets and filtering them through carbon nanotubes, we can get clean drinking water from sea water – an almost inexhaustible resource. It may sound complex, but such engineering feats can save millions of lives, not just in Africa but all over the planet.
Japan has long been renowned for its mind-blowing technological advances that are often years ahead of the rest of the world. One of its most ambitious plans is to build a working space solar power system by 2030. By drawing on the colossal energy of the sun, it could meet the entire world's electricity requirements indefinitely without nuclear or GHG emissions. It sounds like a space-age dream, doesn't it? If successful, the impact on the world would be monumental. It would mean energy for schools, hospitals, and homes. It would mean another industrial revolution.
Every day, people everywhere are doing their bit, from recycling newspapers at home, to developing hydrogen-powered fuel cell cars in a lab. We are finally entering an era where engineering and technology are making the world a better place. Take the time to think, for just a moment. Now stop, and think towards the future.
The award winners
Winner: Leon Zhang, Urmston Grammar School, Manchester.
Runner-up: Jonathan Morris, St Olave's Grammar School, Kent
Highly Commended: Emily Cullis, Ounsdale Sixth Form College, Wolverhampton; Max Iles, Worcester Sixth Form College; Constance Mantle, Highgate School, London; Ben Richardson, Cults Academy, Aberdeen; Ethan Simpson, Hawick High School.
Winner: Gavin Harper, Cardiff University
Runner Up: Alejandro Vicente-Grabovetsky, Cambridge University
Highly Commended: Thomas Barker, Sheffield Hallam University; Mohammad bin Jalil Welbeck Defence Sixth Form College; Holly Ferrie, Brunel University; Su Sean Goh, LSE; Cole Soutter, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.
Winning Schools: (those submitting most entries)
St Olave's Grammar School, Kent; Westcliff High School for Girls, Essex.
Winner, 19-24: Gavin Harper
Bespoke pieces are always expensive. Whether it's a tailor-cut Savile Row suit, or a hand-made piece of furniture, there is a premium to be paid for exclusivity. That is why one-off's are never going to change the world. They're just too expensive. Make fewer than 100 of them, and the cost of R&D is prohibitive. Churn them out like bottletops, and the initial costs of development dwindle into insignificance.
While many would advocate a smattering of made-to-measure nuclear power stations, the real clean-tech solutions will borrow more from the high street than haute couture.
Once we take a design, engineer out the complexity, make it cheaply and stamp it out cookie-cutter style, the price of innovation falls. It makes engineering business sense, and the concept can just as easily be understood by the hordes of shoppers flocking to Primarni, who know that if you take leading edge design, simplify it and make a lot, you get a product that performs, at an acceptable price.
GE announced in November 2008 that it had shipped its 10,000th 1.5MW wind turbine – impressive, for a company that has only been in the market for just over half a decade: it shows that once mass production intervenes, it's possible to increase capacity quickly. Unlike Ford... these turbines are "only available in white".
Another company, SolFocus is fast becoming the IKEA of the Solar Industry. It knows that if you have an expensive material, whether silicon for a solar panel, or top-notch wood for a table, there are parts of the product where you can use a cheaper material, and where using the more expensive material is needless over-specification. So where IKEA uses quality wood as the facing veneer for its furniture, but makes the structure from cheaper recycled manufactured woods, so SolFocus is using a cheap mirror to concentrate the solar energy onto a small piece of high-quality silicon. It is using less of an expensive material to achieve a similar effect.
They are not the only people with this idea – Cool Earth Solar takes it further. While you can produce a precision-reflecting surface that will give high performance, how much cost can you engineer out of a parabolic reflector? Rather than trying to extract the most sunlight from a given area, why not turn the idea on its head and extract the most sunlight for a given amount of money?
The company feels anything but deflated about its idea to make parabolic reflectors out of metallised mylar – an exceptionally cheap material, but one that does not hold its form very well due to its flimsy nature... unless you make it into a balloon. Premium helium party balloons are made from two circular sheets of plastic fused together, so imagine a parabolic reflector formed from a clear sheet, and a shiny sheet. It's a lightweight solution, to a heavyweight problem. Best of all, the lack of weight means the mounting hardware can be commensurately lean.
Concentrating solar plants apply the same approach on a larger scale. eSolar is a company with bold ambitions – to churn out electricity from the sun at a price lower than you can make it from coal, with its associated carbon penalty. The concept is similar – rather than coating large areas of land with expensive silicon, make arrays of cheap mirror that can focus the energy on a single point. The US threw £266m into developing Solar One, a concentrating plant with a capacity of 64MW (since upgraded to Solar Two), but take this concept, and rather than making a one-off, break it down into modules that can be mass produced out of standard components, and you've got a recipe for cheap, clean power.
The challenge for engineers isn't generating complexity – throw sufficient money at a problem, and it's always possible to generate a sophisticated technical solution – but reducing the cost to a point where the technologies become ubiquitous.
An apocryphal tale, long proven to be fictitious, carries an important fable for clean-tech. The story goes that the Americans invested a small fortune in inventing a pressurised pen (that claim should rightfully be attributed to Dr Paul C Fisher) which could write in zero-G, while the Russians used a pencil.
Cheap and a lot is the answer.
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