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.
Why do skyscrapers sway? Can materials really repair themselves? Can one person cause a bridge to collapse?
QEPrize Ambassador Roma Agrawal has recently released a new book, exploring the mysteries of the built environment. To read an excerpt, click here!
We have five copies of BUILT to give away to our followers on Twitter. To be in with a chance of winning Roma’s new book, simply tweet us a picture of your favourite building, telling us why you love it so much! Make sure to use the hashtag #BUILT and tag @QEPrize in your tweet.
Electronically displayed information is everywhere; smartphones, laptops, TV, advertising billboards, wearables… the list of devices we use goes on and on. These displays are mostly based on either liquid crystal (LCD) or organic light emitting diode (OLED) technology. These are great technologies, but they are not without limitations. We have all experienced the poor readability of a phone screen in sunlight and short battery life, largely due to the high power consumption of the display. Recent research has also shown that evening use of these light-emitting devices can negatively affect sleep and next-morning alertness.
So how can we design the next generation of displays to address these issues? A promising approach is to develop displays which can reflect natural ambient light or room lights to illuminate the screen, rather than using the powerful backlighting used in LCDs. Deployed in eReader devices, reflective displays provide vastly improved power consumption and outdoor readability. But this current form of reflective display technology cannot render good colour, nor deliver video rate refresh rates – a major limiting factor to wider application.
Engineering is all around us – it’s an intrinsic part of our society. In her new book, QEPrize Ambassador Roma Agrawal explores how construction has evolved from the mud huts of our ancestors to towers of steel that reach into the sky. Below is an excerpt from the book, which is out now!
On the morning of 12 March 1993, I went to school in the Juhu district of Mumbai as usual, with my hair tied neatly back, wearing a crisp white blouse and grey pinafore. My teeth were hidden by braces, which were interwoven with my choice of green bands; definitely not cool (yes, even at nine I was already the class nerd). At 2.00pm Mum picked up my sister and me in our lime-green Fiat and took us home. While she was parking the car, we raced up four flights of stairs in our daily competition to see who could make it to our front door first. But something felt different. We stopped at the last step; we couldn’t get to the door because our neighbour was standing there, nervously fiddling with her dupatta, looking distressed.
An engineer, scientist and social tech entrepreneur, I am currently studying for a PhD in Electrical Engineering at the University of Cambridge. The co-founder of two social tech start-ups, ‘Wudi‘ & ‘Favalley‘, my vision is to innovate, transform and empower society, revolutionising education through technology. I aspire to provide a platform for young people to become positive change makers for society.
Being in love with physics, exploring, and creating ‘stuff’, engineering came as an obvious choice to me. Trying to understand the mysterious ‘electric shock’ I received from objects as a child motivated me to take up electrical engineering as my specialisation. I started off with an undergraduate degree, then moved on to do a master’s and am now pursuing a PhD in the same area.
Two years ago, on a rainy Monday in October, Queen Elizabeth II handed the 2015 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering to Dr Robert Langer. Only the second person to receive the award, the chemical engineer was honoured for his life’s work in developing ways to control the release of large-molecule drugs over time.
Used by 300 pharmaceutical, chemical and biotechnology companies, and featuring in some 1000 patents, Bob’s work has touched the lives of 2 billion people worldwide. His technology has helped develop treatments for cancer, diabetes and mental illnesses. He has even worked with famed voice surgeon, Steven Zeitels, to treat vocal injuries like those suffered by Julie Andrews and Adele.
Two years after receiving the award, Bob remains delightfully humbled by his success. “It was such a tremendous honour,” he said. “Firstly, it was a thrill to meet the Queen, who was so nice, and to meet five other members of the Royal Family. It’s such a wonderful prize and it’s hard for me to believe I could receive such an honour.”
Michael was clearly frightened. He said he’d seen a flash of light and the next thing he knew a dark curtain had come across his vision. Two hours later, he’d been sent from the emergency room to me – a trainee eye surgeon – and I was straining to get a good view of his retina to diagnose the problem. Seeing the disappointment and desperation on his face, I wished I had a way of sharing down the phone with my consultant what I had seen.
Three years later, I was working in Uganda. A young teacher called Abraham came to the eye clinic, having lost sight in his only seeing eye. Like Michael, he’d had the same symptoms of a flash then a dark curtain. This time, however, I was able to examine him and correctly diagnose a retinal detachment.
Engineers at Sandia’s Combustion Research Facility and the Technical University of Denmark have discovered a new way to see and photograph pollutants in car engines. By understanding when – and how – soot forms inside engines, researchers can cut harmful emissions at the source.
Traditional engines work by pulling petrol and air into a cylinder, compressing it with a piston and igniting it with a spark. The resulting explosion forces the piston down, producing power. In a bid to clean up their cars, many manufacturers are adopting low emission, ‘direct injection’ fuel systems. Instead of mixing the air and fuel beforehand, nozzles spray petrol under high pressure directly into the cylinder. This burns less fuel with each explosion, giving better fuel economy and lower carbon dioxide emission per mile driven.