I would like to welcome you to the July newsletter. As reported previously, we are currently preparing for the ASEM International Annual Conference to be held virtually this year. As such there is a significant amount of planning work being carried out by various people to ensure the event runs smoothly. The ASEM Town Hall Meeting held last Friday allowed initial details around the conference to be discussed and I am delighted we had so many engaged members attending the meeting. More details associated with the conference will be released over the coming weeks and months. Over the last month the new ASEM 2020 International Webinar Series commenced and I would like to thank Dr. Yesim Sireli (International Director) for coordinating the webinar series.
In this introduction I would also like to reflect on developments in the energy sector and how they relate to engineering management. The COVID-19 pandemic is clearly impacting almost every part of our lives. Indeed, the social distancing measures and working from home arrangements have recently led to a dramatic reduction in burning of hydrocarbons and it was reported in April that daily global CO2 emissions have decreased by around 15-20% when compared to corresponding figures from 2019. Unfortunately, the reduction in CO2 emissions is probably going to be a temporary situation and as economic activity will inevitably pick up at some point, CO2 emissions will likely return to previously unsustainable levels. But what are the options going forward if we are to limit CO2 emissions and address the situation of global warming caused by greenhouse gases?
Adopting renewable forms of energy have an important role to play, including harnessing solar, wind, hydro and tidal energy as well as biomass. All these forms of energy have the capacity to generate clean and sustainable power. In cases where such clean forms of energy are used to generate electricity that is used in electric vehicles, the overall life cycle emissions are potentially very low. Conversely, where an electric vehicle is charged with electricity generated from a coal fired power station, the overall emissions picture is not as good. Another option to move towards environmental sustainability is to adopt hydrogen as a fuel source (e.g. in hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles), although there is still a need to generate the hydrogen in the first place – this can be done either via natural gas reforming or via electrolysis of water (where the electricity can be provided via a further renewable source). The move to a so called ‘hydrogen economy’ offers much promise for supporting environmental sustainability and the implementation of supporting infrastructure and industrial supply chains to service the economy will also generate many challenges and opportunities.
Other developments to reduce CO2 emissions include a need for greater levels of energy efficiency – simply burning fuel in a more efficient manner reduces CO2 emissions. Also, moving from coal to natural gas fired power stations as an interim measure – eliminating coal burning and then in time eliminating natural gas burning through other alternatives. Moreover, nuclear power can have a role to play. Nuclear energy via the fission process is an option in regard to low levels of CO2 emissions as well as generating reliable base load power – however, there are the obvious undesirable outputs in terms of highly radioactive fission products. Looking ahead, nuclear fusion may have much to offer – it is after all the process that powers our own sun. Here there are different options, including magnetic confinement (including tokamak reactors), inertial confinement (e.g. laser-driven) as well as other approaches, such as via an electrically driven z-pinch. Many laboratories around the world are working on the physics associated with these different modes of fusion-driven nuclear power generation, but the engineering challenges remain immense and we are likely to have to wait for some time until the technology can be proven at a reliable and commercial industrial scale.
There are many different approaches for moving in the direction of environmental sustainability and reducing our dependence on the burning of fossil fuels. With such a dynamic and complex environment along with the need to steer scientific developments towards viable technologies and industrial application, the energy sector represents an ideal industrial application for the discipline of engineering management – where there are many opportunities to display the skills and knowledge associated with the management of people and projects in a technological or engineering systems context.
Dr. Simon Philbin