Architecture has been borrowing from Mother Nature for millennia. The first structures were made from natural materials; wood, straw, stone and soils. Many common objects that we use today are inspired by plant life too – burdock burs inspired George de Mestral to invent Velcro in 1955, and wind turbines are inspired by the fins of humpback whales!
Today, as engineers face the issues caused by climate change and high energy consumption, they are drawing on nature again to change the way we build our homes and offices.
Khainza Energy produces clean, affordable, long lasting cooking gas and packages it in cylinders for sale to low income households in Uganda. The gas is produced entirely from organic waste through biochemical processes. Our gas burns with no smoke, no smell and yet costs less than charcoal!
The idea was inspired by a woman living in Eastern Uganda. She gave birth to her first child when she was barely 16 years old. She now has 6 children, whom she has been providing for almost single handedly. Every morning at 4am, the children awake to the loud sound of an axe splitting firewood. They can hear their mother wheezing and coughing in the small kitchen as she prepares their breakfast. Three years ago, this brave woman was diagnosed with an acute respiratory infection. She had spent a large part of her life effectively “smoking”.
As chemical engineers and chemists, we often don’t get to see what we create – molecules are too small to see and chemical processes often happen in closed systems. As such, when we do get to see the fruits of our labor, the result can be incredibly exciting and motivating.
This was the case in the founding of my company, Sironix Renewables. During my PhD at the University of Minnesota, I worked with a team of scientists to develop new, eco-friendly replacements to existing chemicals and fuels. The process involved making renewably-sourced products, like fuels, detergents, and plastics. Finding a suitable replacement to an existing product is great, but for us the ‘holy grail’ was finding something that worked better than what existed.
One of these ‘holy grail’ moments struck us when we were looking at a set of vials – all but one was filled with a cloudy, white liquid. We were looking at the hard water stability of new detergent molecules for things like spray cleaners and laundry detergents, and the cloudy, white liquid meant it didn’t work well. The one clear vial, however, was our new detergent molecule and it performed flawlessly. This was one of the few moments where we got to see the result of our work.
In celebration of our global QEPrize Engineering Ambassadors’ network, we met up with some of our ambassadors to find out a bit more about what they do, and why they decided to become the engineers they are today.
Air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) state that in 2012, around 7 million people died because of air pollution exposure. This accounted for one in eight of total global deaths. They estimate polluted air costs the world $3-5 trillion per year and affects 92% of people on the planet. Reducing air pollution could save trillions of dollars and millions of lives. In the UK alone, the economic cost of air pollution is an estimated £54 billion. Every year, over 40,000 deaths can be linked to poor air quality. This is without including new evidence that links with health issues such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.
With a bold new twin-chassis design, our ground-breaking GRAID robot is on track to transform the way National Grid inspects previously unreachable sections of its network. Project Lead David Hardman shares the latest as this innovative pipe dream gets closer to reality.
Human fascination with the power of machines has remained undimmed for decades. So it’s no surprise that our latest robotic innovation – Project GRAID – has been capturing the imagination of everyone from the national press to the gas industry, our customers and stakeholders.
Engineering is responsible for the pulleys, wheels and bows and arrows that carried us towards civilisation. It powered the SS Great Britain across the Atlantic and raised the Eiffel Tower. Without engineering, we wouldn’t have powerful computers tucked away in pockets or a direct line to outer space. Since its inception thousands of years ago, engineering has undoubtedly shaped our world. The question we’re addressing this month, however, is what happens next?
Upon first impression, mine may appear to be a story of failure. At the age of 17, the idea of deciding what to do with the rest of my life was quite daunting. I didn’t know where to start. I chose the option that required the least amount of effort; do what my parents did and become a medical doctor. After applying and being rejected from medicine for two years in a row, I thought I’d better try something else!
Meanwhile, a blue and orange ‘whynotchemeng’ leaflet had found its way into my hands. I remember being impressed by the wide variety of areas chemical engineers can work in. And of course, drawn to the ‘high graduate starting salaries’… I felt like I would have a choice at the end of this degree. As I didn’t have a strong answer for ‘why not chem eng?’, I decided to try it out and see where it took me!