THE BLOG
01/16/2015 11:32 am ET Updated Mar 18, 2015

Engineering for the Future

From the steam engine to the space shuttle, from the telephone to the Internet, some of humanity's most impressive achievements are the work of engineers searching for solutions to big problems.

I will never forget the excitement I felt as a young girl growing up in a small village in Greece and watching a broadcast of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon on a neighbor's television set.

Armstrong's bravery and eloquence amazed me, but my heart was with the engineers at NASA down here on earth. Watching them mastermind the historic Apollo 11 mission transformed my life. I was determined to become an engineer before I understood what that really meant.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines engineering as "the application of science and mathematics by which the properties of matter and the sources of energy in nature are made useful to people." Because it encompasses what engineers have been doing for thousands of years and what they must do today and far into the future, this definition is probably as good as any.

Engineers will always be called upon to design bridges, map out transportation and water-delivery systems, invent new machines and create products people need or simply enjoy. In the part of the world that is still developing and hoping to catch up with more industrialized nations, the ingenuity of engineers is crucial to improving the lives of millions of people through technology and innovation.

But with the world's population rapidly expanding and our ecosystems under extreme stress, the field of engineering must focus like never before on sustainability and environmental repair.

By 2050, a little more than a generation from now, the earth's population is projected to reach 9.6 billion. Around the world, environmental damage to our oceans, land and atmosphere is already catastrophic.

Last year, the Chinese government reported that nearly a fifth of the country's agricultural land was polluted. A year earlier, China's vice minister for land and resources said the degradation was so severe on 8 million acres that planting should not be allowed.

In our oceans, the United Nations has said we have about 500 "dead zones" where most marine life cannot survive. The UN Environmental Program estimated in 2006 that every square mile of ocean contains 46,000 pieces of floating plastic.

Because of all the carbon we've pumped into the sky, we know climate change is a growing problem, threatening our coastlines, producing more extreme weather and wildfires and affecting world food production.

Add more than two billion additional people to the planet between now and 2050 and imagine the demand for more water, energy, food, materials, environmental clean-up, infrastructure, transportation, waste disposal, sanitation, communications, health care and other necessities.

The Grand Challenges

To begin addressing this future, the National Academy of Engineering in 2008 surveyed a diverse committee of experts from around the world to identify "Grand Challenges" that the world, and hence the engineering profession, will need to solve over the next century and beyond.

"As the population grows and its needs and desires expand, the problem of sustaining civilization's continuing advancement, while still improving the quality of life, looms more immediate," the Academy said when the list was released.

The original NAE list of Grand Challenges included 14 goals, such as making solar energy more economical, reverse engineering of the brain, securing cyberspace and preventing nuclear terror.

The list was eventually refined into 10 broad areas the NAE said will require intense focus by the engineering profession, and therefore by engineering colleges like the one at UC Davis and eight other University of California campuses. Those areas were food, energy, water, health, safety and security, environment, infrastructure, poverty, economy and education.

In the UC system, we have been working on plans for a new system wide graduate research program tied directly to the NAE's list, and many UC faculty and students are already doing important work on these issues.

On the UC Davis campus, for instance, Ruihong Zhang, a professor of biological and agricultural engineering, invented technology that turns industrial waste and household garbage into energy. Her biodigester does that now on the site of the university's former landfill.

Dan Sperling, director of our Institute of Transportation Studies, and Bryan Jenkins, professor of biological and agricultural engineering, helped write California's Low Carbon Fuel Standard, the world's first air quality standard to reduce carbon emissions from transportation fuels.

And students at our Student Research Expo have showcased their work to find a cheaper, easier way to recycle plastic and a new approach to tissue preparation that makes heart valve replacements more successful.

Technology and industrialization have made dramatic improvements in the quality of life for millions of people around the world, thanks in large part to engineers who've designed the systems and processes needed to increase productivity. Engineers will continue to do work that lifts people out of poverty and improves the human condition through growth and development.

But progress and increased population have come with a steep price, putting undeniable stresses on the environment and jeopardizing our planet. For our children and grandchildren to lead prosperous, healthy lives, the next generations of engineers must devote themselves to the Grand Challenges and a more sustainable approach to their profession.