Science and Engineering Week: Saving the world

As a special science week kicks off, we look at the world’s pressing problems and how scientists and engineers might help solve them.

As the world’s population grows, and resources get scarcer, we face a daunting set of environmental challenges. Can we produce enough food? Can we prevent global warming? Can we safeguard endangered animals and plants?

Scientists and engineers look to technology for ways to solve these problems, and they’ve already had some success. Renewable energy, for example, is a big area of study. If engineers can build better wind farms or more efficient solar panels, we can make big steps towards reducing our use of fossil fuels, a major cause of climate change.

Another approach is carbon capture and storage. If we can catch damaging carbon dioxide (CO2) before it leaves the power station, we might be able to slow down global warming.

And some scientists are taking it even further – it should be possible to grow algae in power station exhaust fumes. The heat and CO2 make conditions perfect for plants. The plants absorb carbon, and can then be broken down to produce more fuel – and more energy.

Petrol in cars is the source of millions of tonnes of CO2 each year. Building electric cars is a huge scientific and engineering challenge, but if we can do it we can hugely reduce atmospheric pollution. More and better electric cars come out each year.

Food production is a challenge too, causing pollution and harming wildlife. But the right technology could reduce a lot of the impacts.

Clever organic farming techniques can cut pollution and improve harvests. Genetic modification is controversial but, done right, it might have a lot of answers. These technologies are all happening now – though there’s lots of work yet to be done. Others are further away on the horizon. Solar panels floating in space could produce vast quantities of clean power. Plasma gasification plants could get energy from sewage. Animal-free meat (grown in vats) could hugely reduce pollution caused by farming.

Then there’s the Holy Grail: fusion power. Fusion – when atoms smash together to form new elements – is what keeps the sun burning in the sky. If we could harness that power here on earth, we could access a limitless supply of clean energy.

On the downside, the science is so complicated that it may take decades, if it can be done at all.

The challenge ahead

None of the problems we face are easy. If we’re going to solve them, we’ll need more scientists, and more engineers. Some of their ideas will work, some will not. Some will remain distant hopes. But the only way to make progress is just to keep on trying.

You Decide

  1. Would you want to be a scientist or engineer? Why / why not?
  2. Do you think you could go without modern luxuries to save the environment?

Activities

  1. There are lots of global challenges ahead. Pick one and then use scientific or engineering skills to propose a solution.
  2. Do some further research into one of the technologies mentioned in the article. Write a report to the government describing its advantages and disadvantages. Would you give funding to research projects in this area?

Some People Say...

“Science creates knowledge. Opinion creates ignorance.’ Hippocrates of Cos, 460 – 370 BC”

What do you think?

Q & A

With so many technologies being developed, how come we still have problems?
Because good science takes time. And even when something works in principle, it’s often hard to put into practice. New technologies have to be cheap and effective enough to replace old ones, and that’s often a major engineering challenge.
But in the long run, science can save the world?
We can hope so, although it would probably happen through gradual steps forward rather than one giant breakthrough. On the other hand, there are those who say science doesn’t have the answers.
Really?
So-called ‘deep green’ environmentalists say technology is the problem, not the solution. They say we need to go back to nature, and learn to live without modern conveniences rather than relying on science to find a quick fix.