Category Archives: sustainability

Where have all the insects gone?

I remember when our children were younger, and we went on our summer holidays by car, that the car windscreen would be splattered with the remains of dead insects.  This summer my wife and I drove to Cornwall and back for our holidays almost without a single insect hitting our windscreen.  Where have all of the insects gone?  It would appear that we, the human species, have wiped them out as a consequence of the way we exploit the planet for our own comfort and convenience.  Insecticides and monocultures aided by genetically-modified crops make a direct contribution but our consumption of fossil fuels and intensive production of everything from beef [see ‘A startling result‘ on May 18th, 2016] to plastics is changing the environment [see ‘Productive cheating?‘ on November 27th, 2013]. The biologist, Edward O. Wilson observed that ‘If all humankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed 10,000 years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.’  It looks like we are on the cusp of that collapse.

Cristiana Pașca Palmer, the executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity has highlighted the impact of our actions as a species on the other species with which we share this planet.  We are making the planet uninhabitable for an increasing number of species to the extent that the rate of extinct is perhaps the fastest ever seen and we might be the first species to catalogue its own demise.  Our politicians have demonstrated their inability to act together over climate change even when it leads to national disasters in many countries; so, it seems unlikely that they will agree on significant actions to arrest the loss of bio-diversity.  We need to act as individuals, in whatever way we can, to reduce our ecological footprints – that impact that we have on the environment [see ‘New Year Resolution‘ on December 31st, 2014] .  As the Roman poet Horace wrote: ‘You are also affected when your neighbour’s house is on fire’; so, we should not think that none of this affect us.

See also:

Man, the Rubbish Maker

Are we all free-riders?

Some changes to Realize Engineering

The advertising industry is becoming a pervasive influence on us – telling us how we should eat, dress, travel, vacation, borrow, bank, insure, think and vote.  We are constantly bombarded with messages designed to induce us to buy goods or services that we don’t really need and that undermine progress towards a sustainable society [see my post ‘Old is beautiful‘ on May 1st, 2015].

Many services are offered to us for free in order to expose us to advertisements and to collect data about our habits and interests that are put to uses about which we know little.  These issues became prominent last week with the allegations about the inappropriate use of data from Facebook by Cambridge Analytica [see for example the The Guardian on March 25th, 2016].  A number of organisations have reacted by closing down their Facebook pages [see for example Reuters on March 23rd, 2018] and a #deletefacebook movement has started [see for example The Guardian on March 25th, 2016, again].  I have joined them and deleted my Facebook page as well as disconnecting this blog from Facebook.  Also, in a couple of weeks I plan to stop using Twitter to disseminate this blog; so, if you receive this blog via Twitter then please start to follow it directly.

Finally, the advertisements at the bottom of my blog posts will disappear because I am paying to use WordPress instead of allowing advertising to cover the costs.  A side-effect of this change is a new url: realizeengineering.blog/ So please update your bookmarks,if it doesn’t happen automatically!

Formula Ocean

I have had intermittent interactions with motorsport during my engineering career, principally with Formula 1, Formula SAE and Formula Student teams.  The design, construction and competition involved in Formula Student generates tremendous enthusiasm amongst a section of the student community and enormously increases their employability.  As a Department Chair at Michigan State University, I was a proud and enthusiastic sponsor of the MSU Formula SAE team.  However, I find it increasingly difficult to support an activity that is associated with profligate expenditure of energy and resources – this is not the impression of engineering that should be portrayed to our current and future students.  Engineering is about so much more than making a vehicle go around a track as fast as possible.  See my posts on ‘Re-engineering Engineering‘ on August 30th, 2017, ‘Engineering is all about ingenuity‘ on September 14th, 2016 or ‘Life takes engineering‘ on April 22nd, 2015.

There are many other challenges that could taken up by student teams, in competition if that encourages participation, which would benefit human-kind and the planet.  A current hot topic in the UK media is the pollution of oceans by waste plastic [see for example BBC report]; so, engineering undergraduates could be challenged to design, construct and operate an autonomous marine vehicle that collects and processes plastic waste.  It could be powered from the embedded energy in the waste plastic collected in the ocean.  It would need to navigate to avoid collisions with other vessels, coastal features and wildlife, and to locate and identify the waste.  These represent technological changes in chemical, control, electronic, materials and mechanical engineering – and probably some other fields as well.  I have shared this concept with colleagues in Liverpool and there is some enthusiasm for it; maybe some competition from other universities is all that’s needed to get Formula Ocean started.  The machine with the largest positive net impact on the environment wins!

 

Ample sufficiency of solar energy?

Global energy budget from Trenberth et al 2009

I have written several times about whether or not the Earth is a closed system [see for example: ‘Is Earth a closed system? Does it matter‘ on December 10th, 2014] & ‘Revisiting closed systems in Nature‘ on October 5th, 2016).  The Earth is not a closed thermodynamic system because there is energy transfer between the Earth and its surroundings as illustrated by the schematic diagram. Although, the total incoming solar radiation (341 Watts/sq. metre (W/m²)) is balanced by the sum of the reflected solar radiation (102 W/m²) and the outgoing longwave radiation (239 W/m²); so, there appears to be no net inflow or outflow of energy.  To put these values into perspective, the world energy use per capita in 2014 was 1919 kilograms oil equivalent, or 2550 Watts (according to World Bank data); hence, in crude terms we each require 16 m² of the Earth’s surface to generate our energy needs from the solar energy reaching the ground (161 W/m²), assuming that we have 100% efficient solar cells available. That’s a big assumption because the best efficiencies achieved in research labs are around 48% and for production solar cells it’s about 26%.

There are 7.6 billion of us, so at 16 m² each, we need  120,000 square kilometres of 100% efficient solar cells – that’s about the land area of Greece, or about 500,000 square kilometres with current solar cells, which is equivalent to the land area of Spain.  I picked these countries because, compared to Liverpool, the sun always shines there; but of course it doesn’t, and we would need more than this half million square kilometres of solar cells distributed around the world to allow the hours of darkness and cloudy days.

At the moment, China has the most generating capacity from photovoltaic (PV) cells at 78.07 GigaWatts or about 25% of global PV capacity and Germany is leading in terms of per capita generating capacity at 511 Watts per capita, or 7% of their electricity demand.  Photovoltaic cells have their own ecological footprint in terms of the energy and material required for their production but this is considerably lower than most of our current sources of energy [see, for example Emissions from photovoltaic life cycles by Fthenakis et al, 2008].

Sources:

Trenberth KE, Fasullo JT & Kiehl J, Earth’s global energy budget, Bulletin of  the American Meteorological Society, March 2009, 311-324, https://doi.org/10.1175/2008BAMS2634.1.

World Bank Databank: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EG.USE.PCAP.KG.OE

Nield D, Scientists have broken the efficiency record for mass-produced solar panels, Science Alert, 24th March 2017.

2016 Snapshot of Global Photovoltaic Markets, International Energy Agency Report IEA PVPS T1-31:2017.

Fthenakis VM, Kim HC & Alsema E, Emissions from photovoltaic life cycles, Environmental Science Technology, 42:2168-2174, 2008.