How science is engineering solutions to future global challenges
The world is going through a fundamental transformation, which is changing the way we live, work and think. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is ushering in dramatic change and giving rise to a future filled with exciting opportunities and new challenges. Together, governments and businesses must find solutions to society’s most pressing needs – from creating a carbon-free economy to tackling population growth and urbanization.
In any period of rapid change there is an inclination to look for a simple fix, to usher in the new and replace the old way of doing things. But a closer look at the facts tells a different story. Complex problems require many solutions working in harmony to enable positive change.
The challenge for scientists and engineers is to provide solutions anchored in fact, data and today’s realities. And while technologies offer new tools to help uncover solutions, the process also requires hard work, imagination and lots of innovation.
Success rests on implementing and delivering practical, realistic, long-term solutions that make the world cleaner, safer and more sustainable.
The environment is a case in point. Much of the public debate has centered on the central role of renewable power sources in realizing a low-carbon energy future. While the industry is fully behind developing renewables, today we understand that a low or zero-carbon future depends on adopting a multi-faceted approach.
We cannot control sunshine levels or decide when the wind blows, which means solar power and wind power generators will produce too much or too little energy at times. The transition to renewables needs to take account of serious considerations, like overcoming intermittency, providing energy security and balancing economic realities.
Batteries have been much discussed as a means of storing surplus energy, but there are alternatives. Power-to-X technologies enable excess energy generated by renewables to be stored and redistributed when and where needed. For example, surplus electricity can be captured and converted into hydrogen using electrolysis, which can be used to create methane gas or ammonia, key ingredients in manufacturing and fuels.
The road ahead
Despite the growing importance of renewable energy sources to the world’s power generating capacity, McKinsey estimates that nearly three-quarters of the world’s primary energy demand will still be met by coal, oil and gas by mid-century.
To safeguard the future, we need to find new ways of making fossil fuels cleaner and more efficient.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) Group’s carbon capture and storage technology is a good example. At Petra Nova, near Houston, Texas, carbon dioxide is stripped out from the slipstream of flue gas of a coal-fired power plant. As well as reducing harmful emissions, the carbon dioxide is then used for harvesting hard-to-reach oil deposits, remaining in the ground afterwards.
At the same time, innovation must also deliver credible renewable power sources capable of redefining the future energy landscape. Hydrogen is a powerful example of how science is driving radical change in the sector.
Successful tests by Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems (MHPS) have shown that blending hydrogen into our fuel sources can dramatically lower CO₂ emissions from power generation without disrupting generating capacity.
Our ability to meet the world’s future energy needs depends on a complex orchestra of technologies working together in parallel.
E-mobility is a good example of this. Media headlines promote electric cars as a standalone answer to air pollution. While “greener” individual cars are certainly a positive innovation, they are not the only remedy.
Easing congestion, while boosting convenience and sustainability in the mega-cities of the future could also depend on air taxis, smart traffic systems and using more fuel-friendly aircraft designs.
Innovations like MHI Group’s Automated Guideway Transit (AGT) system give city dwellers a smart, automated and comfortable way to move quickly and safely around built-up areas. A reliable, environmentally friendly public transport system removes the number of private cars on city streets, easing both congestion and pollution.
Another global problem is the growing amount of domestic and industrial waste. Experts predict that at current growth rates, the human race could generate 11 million tonnes of solid waste each day by 2100.
Alongside adapting our attitude to what we consume and how much we discard, science can once more provide practical solutions. Waste-to-energy technology generates power from sources like domestic sewage and manufacturing processes.
For example, the Iwate-Chubu Clean Centre incinerator facility in Japan uses MHI Group’s advanced resource recycling systems. The plant generates electricity by burning waste, producing non-toxic, low-chlorine ash that can be used as filler for concrete.
Residual heat, which is often wasted during industrial processes, can also be captured and turned into energy. MHI Group company Turboden installs ORC turbines in industrial plants like the Ori Martin steel mill in Brescia, Italy. The turbines reduce emissions by capturing waste heat, which is converted into electrical energy and also provides heating for the local community.
These are a few examples of innovations that demonstrate how science and engineering are addressing pressing global issues.
Solving the challenges ahead requires a holistic view, grounded in reality. Tomorrow’s energy world will be reached by multiple innovations working in unison to deliver solutions that enable sustained change.