Grand Challenges for Engineering  -  Oct 31, 2014

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Ed Catmull on Energy

By Ed Catmull, President, Pixar Animation Studios & Disney Animation Studios

The generation and use of energy has such a huge impact on the economy, politics, security and the environment that it is our Grand Challenge.  Our reliance on short term market forces to solve these energy problems has left us in a disastrous position.

We all know that market forces are incredibly powerful, but not everyone understands that those forces are not always aligned for the long term good.  It is our responsibility to recognize the urgency of addressing the problems of the generation and use of energy.  This must be the highest national priority.   We need a mechanism to bring the focus of the brightest minds in the nation to bear on this problem.

Fortunately, we have an example from the past that was spectacularly successful: ARPA and the development of computer technologies through university funding.  The computer revolution was launched with this amazing program.  This was politically enlightened, although politicians received no credit for their support even though the computer and communication revolution is recognized world wide.  This lack of credit was unfortunate since our elected officials are not rewarded for long term thinking.  Nevertheless, the effect of this public policy anomaly was profound.  My own area of computer graphics in entertainment is a direct result of that ARPA funding.  Everyone now sees the results in movies and in games, yet very few know the origins of these amazing changes.  My funding in graduate school all came from ARPA and I am deeply grateful for the policies of those times.

Even though DARPA no longer has the right mind-set to effect change, the ARPA model of the '70s was incredibly effective: fund many smart people at universities around the nation to attack all aspects of the generation and use of energy.  These are solvable problems and it requires focused effort by many intelligent people working on a wide range of engineering and scientific disciplines.  We have the best university system in the world and the channeling of the incredible talent in these universities towards energy challenges will solve problems, create new businesses, and perhaps save the nation.

After the energy wake-up call in the '70s, we went back to sleep and now are paying the price in so many ways.  I come with the point of view that you need to solve your problems when you are healthy rather than when the crisis hits, which means we are a bit late.  In fact most people, businesses, and governments do not address their deep problems when they are healthy.  The only way out of this mess is to recognize that this is our real Grand Challenge and that engineering and scientific solutions must and can be found.



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Yanira Amaya, UPBC,Mexicali

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Currently, some people know what ARPA was, even there is information about it but maybe they are tired to read. I know about some innovations and invents through ARPA. There are something very important that maybe no one sees, but Nikola Tesla invented with help of another Engineers, the wireless telegraph that now with an improvements we have the WIFI. Talking about the present, we have many invents that are good and each day someone very intelligent tries to develop something new. I have the hope that the innovations and invents will only be to make good to humanity. I enjoyed the reading and I think that you have a good point to talk and promote.

Jon M, Massachusetts

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Where there is money to be made there is money to be lost. Energy in my opinion is one of the worlds largest problems today. With the increasing carbon footprint count of ppm's its a wonder that the leaders of the world have yet to come to an agreement of saving the Earth for the sake of humanity. But I can not skim just the surface when it comes to a challenge, I must over think it and all its underlying problems. 1. Money: it is the control force of the world. The current monetary system is rubbish. When you have something that is based on nothing, backed by nothing and worth nothing essentially, except debt, you risk future chaos. With that out of the way 2. Power: money is the control force and is creates this idealism of power. When power is all that one is after you lose sight of what really matters, humanity. When one person is so rich and powerful what is the next step? more power. Instead of thinking of long term outcomes one merely thinks on a singular basis of self empowerment, which is like money, no true value. Some may wonder how this has to do with energy? Energy is a big money maker. Is it any coincidence that some of the most power people are oil tycoons? Is it a coincidence that leaders of nations are involved in the oil industries? Is it a coincidence that oil companies get billions in subsidies and green energy programs get little to no benefits? I have an abundance of ideas on how to have a greener home, greener transportation, and a true economy. ( economy by definition: thrifty management; frugality in the expenditure or consumption of materials). MY IDEA: Focus all engineers energy into engineering a true economy. From this idea I guarantee all forms of energy would be positive and not harmful to us now and our children tomorrow. I am not even an engineer or a student in engineering to date (9/8/13) but i understand my job, it was created on the back of poor engineering. Poor engineering is unacceptable and when will the engineers of the world say enough is enough and fight for the economy?

daniel dejesus, holiday fl

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Sir I have and I can send the data on away to make the motor have less slip and also use less kilowatts, it seems I do not know who to show it to.Every company I show it to wants to take the patent and show no interst in helping the world. thank you for your time, the idea came from serving in the military,

du man, southeast asia

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Perhaps one solution to our global energy problem is the hybrid fission-fusion nuclear reactor design (a.k.a. apnrsys - see http://www.kinematicrelativity.com/apnrsys_inf.php). american, british, french, russian, indian, korean and chinese scientists are already looking at this new design; but it seems that they are cowed by the stigma attached to an infamous process involved in the new design.

John Patten, Kalamazoo MI

"Technologies are available today to make "zero energy homes" a reality." 

Home energy use: Technologies are available today to make "zero energy homes" a reality. Combining energy efficiencies (building envelope, appliances, etc) with renewable energy technologies (solar and wind) coupled with geo thermal energy systems (where appropriate) could go a long way to reduce the energy consumption of this market segment. One problem however is the current mentality of people (homeowners, realtors, tax assessors, and government agencies relying on tax revenues from property taxes, home sales, impact fees, etc.) that feel home prices should increase over time, even though the facility ages. One result of this socio-economic aspect is that homes do not get replaced as often as the technology is updated. If we eliminated tax breaks on homes (interest, property taxes, etc.) and revamped the "housing system" to meet reality, i.e., homes should fall in value as they age (same as cars and most other manufactured goods), then large adjustments (such as the recent housing bust) would not be necessary. Once a house fully depreciated, say 20-30 years, it could be "rebuilt" using sustainable building practices and take advantage of current energy technologies to increase its overall energy efficiency.

Seydmehdi K. Ezzabady, Yazd , Iran

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Dear Sirs/Ma'ams: I am an Iranian Scientist and Inventor working on a project to derive energy from Earth magnetic Field. I have a theory in this concern under the name of "TAEZZ". As to this theory man will have another free ,green everlasting ENERGY which is different from Existing renewable energies. We may use it right now in space for space labs and so forth. when super Conductor gets industrial market man may use it on earth. In future soon there will be cables hanging from sky to supply earth energy demands.

William Johnson, 27614

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I too see the ARPA paradigm as profoundly successful and insufficiently applied. I am also convinced "the knowledge of how to organize is the mother of all knowledge". Yet, we engineers are far too weakly applying our insights to governance. We know that the politics of scarcity is manufactured, and that true poverty is wasting resources that might serve our progeny, yet we are not organizing -- even ourselves -- to do dramatically better. DARPA, Stanford, MIT, ATT, IBM, Intel, etc, repeatedly show that profound investment in profound ideas yields profound results. We should also not forget the idea that so famously got away. Toyota didn't -- and GM surely won't. Specialization imposes the necessity of hand-offs. As citizens, we have an interest not only in the basic science and the technology, but in the market deployment. For example, when municipal broadband is so grossly outperforming commercial market providers -- per dollar -- why did the FCC only _acquiesce_ to let muni governments in, after they made a show of strength at the COPE Act hearings. We should have been nationally _leading_ municipalities, not helping to slow them down. We are letting good ideas take too long to deploy; we are not applying the known power of "massive parallelism" and experimentation to innovation in _governance_.

James Trevelyan, University of Western Australia

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Maybe our traditional model of technology development needs adaptation. A survey I am completing examines a sample of about 120 innovations and "scientific breakthroughs" reported as "emerging" in 1981. I wanted to see which ones had reached "maturity" in the sense that they had been widely adopted, either by commercial exploitation or other means of diffusion. About 60% remained scientific or technical curiosities (e.g. a kite-powered ship). All except one innovation that had matured within 25 years were IT-related (e.g. the internet, mobile phones). The only exception was LEDs. The remainder (e.g. subsea oil production, driver-less trains) show a relatively consistent time to maturity of 40 years. This is not so different from the time when the telephone and electric power were emerging in the 1870s. We have closely related energy, water supply and greenhouse gas pollution problems that threaten to overwhelm us long before we can respond with widely diffused new technologies. Like Don Chaffin, I think that the key to these problems lies in human behaviour and novel ways to combine IT with existing technologies. The diffusion of mobile phone technology serves as a model: we can make dramatic changes in a short time. Government can make a contribution by providing strong incentives for new solutions across traditional discipline boundaries. There are some remarkable gaps in our understanding of these issues. Just recently I discovered that there is almost a complete absence of systematic research on what ordinary engineers and technologists actually do in their daily work. When we started to look we found many further surprises. With gaps like this, there must be great potential to make rapid advances in understanding.

Don Chaffin, University of Michigan

"... one of the greatest challenges for engineering is in the development of better concepts, principals and tools that will allow engineers to consider the multitude of real human behaviors, capabilities and needs while designing new products and manufacturing environments." 

Let me begin by quoting George Fisher (The Bridge, 2000) when he stated as part of his final address as Chair of the NAE: "Integrating human needs is engineering's biggest challenge and opportunity. The end of the twentieth century will seem like the Dark Ages in terms of convenience." The recent NAE report entitled: " The Engineer of 2020" seems overly optimistic about this matter by stating: "Ergonomic design, and an eye on other physical and mental health influences of engineered products will be an underlying theme across all engineering disciplines". I say this is overly optimistic because a very small proportion (probaly less than 10%) of engineering students receive any education related to the the ergonomics and human factors aspect of technologies and product designs, based on a survey I ran last year that was presented to the NRC Human Factors Panel. So I am suggesting that one of the greatest challenges for engineering is in the development of better concepts, principals and tools that will allow engineers to consider the multitude of real human behaviors, capabilities and needs while designing new products and manufacturing environments. Today we are just beginning to see how this might be accomplished with the emergence of digital human modeling methods. Simulations of realistic looking humans are now common place, but their livelike behaviors and vulnerabilities are far from being predicted well. Cross-cutting research involving engineers, computer scientists, psychologists, physiologists and many others are making progress in this domain, but the challenges are large, as we truly are in the "dark ages" when it comes to predicting how various people will behave in different engineered environments, and how they can be easily injuried in certain circumstances. I believe this to be a "grand challenge". Please let me know if I can provide any further background on this topic. Don Chaffin

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