Our oceans are dirty. AI-powered robot microscopes may save them.
In five years, small autonomous AI microscopes, networked in the cloud and deployed around the world, will continually monitor the condition of the natural resource most critical to our survival: water.
As we discussed in our recent ‘State of engineering‘ article, engineers are innovating across the pipeline to develop accessible, low-cost, and intuitive technologies that help to realise the goal of global food and water security. For engineers, a large part of achieving this goal involves guaranteeing that the technologies and practices developed are sustainable. If not sustainable, then the developments merely provide a temporary patch for the problem, rather than an actual solution. Thankfully, as QEPrize donor company Hitachi writes, ag-tech solutions that optimise food production, improve food distribution, and reduce food consumption are already being implemented.
Before you dive into this article too deeply, take a moment to read the following description, and then close your eyes for a second. Imagine yourself standing inside a climate-controlled, high-ceiling warehouse. In front of you stands a tower with eight irrigated levels, on each of which lettuces, herbs, microgreens, and baby greens grow under LED lights. Robotics bring trays with young plants from outside into the right position in the growing tower, while on the other end fully grown crops are taken out, ready to be harvested. Can you see it? You are standing in Urban Crop Solutions’ PlantFactory – an indoor vertical farm – a highly engineered manufacturing plant producing not goods, but crops.
Achieving food and water security is a key priority for people, organisations, and government bodies around the world. However, due to a combination of factors – for example, population growth, climate change, lack of infrastructure, the high cost of maintaining existing infrastructure, or prioritisation from particular governments – achieving food and water security globally is proving to be not only an uncertainty but an increasingly complex problem.
While challenges in food and water security are often associated with developing countries – where poor infrastructure or inhospitable climate conditions limit either access to safe drinking water or agricultural productivity – a lack of resource security is a threat for the developed world as well. Engineers around the world are diligently working to produce innovative, relatively low-cost technologies that improve grey and green infrastructure, create new and efficient processes, and optimise social behaviours. If through these innovations, we can increase supply, reduce the demand on existing systems, and allocate resources differently, then we are a step closer to achieving global food and water security.
Imagine that you’re in the middle of a festival crowd, dancing away to the most dynamic names in music. 50-foot fireballs are exploding into the air, audience members are being abducted by acrobatic performers and luminescent creatures are swooping from the sky. Oh, and imagine that you’re looking up at a 50-tonne mechanical spider.
Arcadia is a performance art collective renowned for engineering mechanical monsters that they use as large-scale performance spaces. Perhaps the most recognisable of these is The Spider, a 360-degree structure built from recycled materials. Created by sculptors, engineers, painters and pyrotechnicians, the arachnid is an experiential dance stage for festival attendees.
At over 80 metres in length, a single blade from a wind turbine is an impressive feat of engineering. Modern offshore wind turbine blades are now the largest fibreglass components ever cast in a single piece. This has been made possible through continuous improvement in materials development. The layering and structuring of fibreglass was originally a craft used for building the hulls of boats. Now, the design of composite materials – a group of materials which includes fibreglass – is done by international teams of engineers working together to create these record-breaking components.
Materials engineering is uniquely important to the design of wind turbines, particularly because there is so much of it! As the industry has grown, so has the size of our machines, with the largest now gathering wind from an area greater than three football pitches put together. The area that the blades sweep through is an important factor in turbine performance. At a given wind speed, the amount of power which can be extracted from the wind increases by the square of the blade length – 3 times longer blades, 9 times more available power. However, if things are simply scaled up, the mass or weight of the blade increases by the cube of the length – 3 times the length, 27 times the mass!
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.
A team of engineers at RMIT University in Melbourne have found a novel use for the trillions of cigarette butts that litter our streets.
By coating discarded butts in paraffin or bitumen, the team can mix them into asphalt concrete, making a new building material. this new asphalt mixture can create cooler, greener pavements in cities and towns. By lowering the asphalt’s density, pavements become more porous, draining surface water away. Another useful property is the asphalt’s lower thermal conductivity. By soaking up less of the sun’s heat, the cool pavements could cut the ‘urban heat island’ effect felt in many cities.