Watch: Solving the World’s Most Challenging Problems

05 February 2018

Hungarian aerospace engineer Theodore von Kármán is remembered for saying “Scientists study the world as it is; engineers create the world that never has been.” In this edition of the Engineering360 news brief, we’ll look at some of the ways that engineers are solving some of the most challenging problems facing the world today.

Forging a ‘Green’ Chemical Industry

The first industrial plastic was patented in 1869, as an alternative to the elephant-tusk ivory used for making piano keys. Nearly 150 years later, plastic is everywhere in our lives — but it’s often derived from petroleum, which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and reliance on fossil fuels. That’s why scientists at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), led by the University of Wisconsin, Madison, are working on developing renewable plastics from organic matter. One of the biggest challenges is finding an economical way to do it, which the researchers have tackled by using fructose and a recyclable, plant-derived solvent known as GVL. The end result is an inexpensive and high-yielding process to create a compound called FDCA, one of a dozen chemicals that the U.S. Department of Energy has identified as critical to forging a “green” chemical industry. Learn more.

A Lightning Rod for the Food Supply

The world food supply is dependent on synthetic fertilizer, one of many important industrial chemicals manufactured by combining nitrogen with hydrogen. Although there’s plenty of nitrogen in the atmosphere to go around, pulling apart its atomic bonds to make that reaction possible takes tremendous energy. It’s typically done in a century-old process that uses a chamber heated to more than 400 degrees Celsius, or 752 degrees Fahrenheit. Recently, scientists at Princeton decided to investigate the use of light instead of heat to produce the same results. In a nanoscale simulation that used metallic structures smaller than a single wavelength of light, they were able to concentrate light’s energy into a very small area. The metals essentially acted like a lightning rod, focusing the energy needed to break the atomic bonds. Moving forward, the researchers believe they will be able to produce this effect not at temperatures of 400 degrees, but at room temperature — which will allow for a radical reduction in energy. Learn more.

LEDs Light the Way

The light-emitting diode, or LED, has revolutionized lighting over the past 25 years. One of its inventors, Nobel Prize-winning electronic engineer Shuji Nakamura, published an article recently about its impact. He noted that an LED white light bulb has a 20 times greater efficiency than a traditional incandescent. In the United States, the transition to LED lighting will eliminate the need for more than thirty 1,000-megawatt power plants by the year 2030. Right now, LEDs are being used to create efficient indoor vertical farms with 24-hour growth cycles not dependent on weather conditions. And looking to the future, Nakamura says that LEDs that emit ultraviolet radiation to kill bacterial pathogens may be used in developing countries to solve water purification problems. Learn more.

Of course, these are just a few of the solutions that engineering is producing to make the world a better place. Now remember to check out Engineering360 and Electronics360 for more news and information like this — plus engineering reference guides, product spec sheets and videos of interest.

Get out there and change the world!

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