Article - Issue 39, June 2009

Engineering the future; Response to Biofuels: The Future

Download the article (52 KB)

Engineering the future

The UK can be rightly proud of its rich heritage of engineering excellence. But, engineering always looks to the future, constantly improving, innovating, and pushing the boundaries of what is possible.

The world faces many challenges: the global economic downturn, climate change, poverty and disease. Tackling such problems will require political resolve, scientific understanding – and engineering know-how.

Under the banner Engineering the future, the organisations that make up the professional engineering community (engineering institutions, the Engineering Technology Board, Engineering Council UK, and The Royal Academy of Engineering) will raise the profile of engineering and aim to ensure that it makes its decisive contribution to the health and wealth of society.

The grand challenges facing the UK and other nations require bold, far-sighted policy decisions by politicians and policy makers. These decisions need underpinning with the highest level of technical engineering advice – but just as important is the need to enlist an engineer’s mindset and skills into the policymaking process. With their focus on analysis and problem-solving, engineers are, by nature, deliverers of solutions, with a clear pathway from concept through design to implementation and if necessary, decommissioning. The recent report from the IUSS Select Committee, Engineering: from ideas to reality, rightly points out that UK Government policy often lacks this crucial dimension.

The professional engineering community is working to ensure that Government has access to the best engineering advice and to fulfil our roles as partners to inform and improve policymaking, from planning to delivery.

Raising our public profile is another priority because we know that all too often, there is a lack of understanding of what engineers actually do. Engineering is everywhere in society and it is important that engineers are out there, talking about the implications of their work, listening to and taking account of people’s views.

Over the coming months, we shall be reaching out to the public through the media, exhibitions and other activities, with key engineering messages. We want to engage the public in dialogue about the issues of interest and concern that engineering innovation brings with it. At the simplest level, we shall be talking about what engineering is and how engineers approach their work. We aim to build awareness of the excitement and achievements of cutting-edge engineering.

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, we need to attract more young people, at every level, into engineering. Promoting a better understanding about what engineering is and does will be crucial if we are to keep the talent pipeline flowing and so be able to meet future challenges: establishing a low-carbon economy, securing sustainable energy supplies, managing our increasingly precious supplies of water, ensuring that affordable healthcare is available, and building our future prosperity through world-class hi-tech innovation.

We know that we have a big challenge ahead and we don’t underestimate the difficulties of raising awareness and building influence in the ways that I have outlined here. We do, however, believe that engineering needs to be in a position to exert a positive influence on the future - and that is why we are determined to succeed.

David Brown
Chair, Professional Board of the Engineering Technology Board
Chief Executive, Institution of Chemical Engineers

Response to Biofuels: The Future?

I was very disappointed when I read ‘Biofuels: The Future?’ in Ingenia 39 (March 2009). I was expecting a much more bullish exposition of the current state of play on biofuels and instead I read an article which finished with “…it does not seem reasonable at present to expect that biofuels for transport will provide more than a small fraction of total transport needs.” My disappointment was not with this conclusion specifically, but that the article appeared to ignore almost entirely the huge potential of sea water irrigation and the use of currently unproductive coastal and near coastal areas around the world. Such areas can certainly make up more than “the size of small countries” which the authors find difficult to envisage. At a stroke this solves the problem of biofuel production competing for scarce fresh water resources.

Sea water irrigation is not just relevant to algae farming, but also to sea water tolerant plants, the Halophytes. Last October an interesting presentation was given at a Royal Aeronautical Society Greener By Design Conference – Seawater Agriculture: A Source of Sustainable Biofuels by Carl Hodges, Chairman, Global Seawater Inc. This included details of pilot integrated sea water coastal farms at Bahia Kino, Sonora, Mexico and in Eritrea. The main biofuel crops were Mangroves and Salicornia, an annual oil seed crop, along with other products in an integrated farming system. Algae farming was also being investigated. The presentation certainly led to the view that the potential was enormous and much more significant than satisfying “a small fraction of total transport needs”.

One of the main problems for Civil Air Transport, in particular, is that no other form of motive power is really viable at present other than the gas turbine powerplant driving a large diameter ducted fan or open rotor. Due to the effects on airframe weight and drag, the fuel has to be either fossil based kerosene or a “drop in” substitute with near identical properties including power density and tolerance to low temperatures. Such drop-in fuels can be produced by hydrogenating vegetable oils or the more traditional more expensive Fischer Tropsch process. The world wide potential for saline aquaculture is certainly enough to at least cater for all of aviation’s requirements!

Of course the time scales for large scale deployment and industrialisation are debatable, and politics and economics are certainly a consideration. The range $70 to $90 equivalent to a barrel of fossil oil was quoted in Carl Hodges’ presentation and with fossil oil prices having come down to around $50 a barrel then this is not a viable cost. However, how long will it be before fossil oil prices escalate beyond that level once again, either through market forces or with imposed government environmental taxation? As noted in the Ingenia article, this is indeed “an exciting time for biofuel researchers”, but in the many articles one now reads on the subject I believe the potential from saline aquaculture has not yet been given a fair hearing!

Professor Jeffrey Jupp FREng
Member RAeS Greener By Design Executive.

[Top of the page]