Technology and Society, September 2023: Green Stormwater Infrastructure basin next to Wabant Street near Brandon Park, Lancaster, PA. (Image: Penn State)

Working on the new section in Tech Briefs magazine, Technology and Society, got me thinking about why I became an engineer and the kind of work I did. I was always interested in trying to do good in the world, but I considered the two things to be separate. I enjoyed the process of being an engineer, of solving puzzles and creating real things to implement real functions, but I didn’t think much about the ultimate significance of my creations. Insofar as my job, my social conscience only came into play about the kinds of things I did not want to design. But I never thought about looking for work that would help solve real-world problems. I relegated working for positive good to my free time.

But this new department in our magazine has motivated me to consider how engineers can contribute to making people’s lives better. I wish I had thought about that during my engineering years, but I’m glad that I’m now working on a magazine that highlights examples of engineers and scientists doing just that.

One of the most pressing problems in our world at this moment is the harmful effects of global warming. We see it in increasingly unstable weather systems, larger numbers of violent storms, droughts, floods, wild fires. People are forced to leave their homes because of these extreme environmental conditions and that in itself creates new social problems.

As just one example, an analysis in the Washington Post  forecasts that climate change and demographic growth could put more than 5 billion people at risk for malaria by 2040, the major contributing factors being increases in average temperatures, flooding, cyclones, and longer malaria seasons.

What can engineers do about these problems? A look at this past year’s Technology and Society articles provides a small sample of some really good ideas. For example, developing sources of energy that don’t rely on the burning of fossil fuels.

In the October issue of Tech Briefs, the Technology and Society article describes an engineering process that has a double impact on sustainability. Researchers at North Carolina State University have developed a technology that speeds up the evaluation of new, more efficient, photovoltaic materials, and in addition, the process for running the tests is itself more energy efficient.

The April article describes a technology that removes one of the main culprits responsible for global warming — carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The oceans of the world absorb about 30 percent of atmospheric carbon dioxide by converting it into the phytoplankton that fish feed on. The new process, upwelling, brings more of the phytoplankton to the surface, which in turn will grow the fish population, providing a much-needed source of food security. And the process itself is run with renewable wave energy. I call this a win-win-win for society.

The January and September articles are about new technologies to deal with the increasing number of wildfires and floods.

The January article describes a company started by two engineers to monitor wildfires more effectively. It’s done with a stratospheric “microballoon” that can easily be moved to a critical area and launched and recovered by a single operator. The small imaging payload carried by these balloons delivers “high-resolution aerial imagery and wildfire monitoring at costs drastically less than satellites, aircraft, or drones.”

In September we learned about a research team that is collecting hard data about how to effectively reduce urban flooding by strategically adding green areas and optimizing them to absorb stormwater.

The February article was about a technology that uses cameras and artificial intelligence to identify the exact locations of weeds so that they can be removed with minimal input of chemicals. That has the dual benefit of optimizing agricultural output while reducing soil contamination.

In May, the topic was an exciting new method for increasing the housing supply by 3D printing homes with specially formulated concrete. The method is quicker and cheaper than traditional techniques, and since concrete is better at retaining energy, there are long-term savings for heating and cooling.

Two more articles focus on the sadly increased need for prosthetic limbs. In March, we ran an article about an engineering startup company founded by two engineers who have developed an inexpensive method to produce custom-fitted, 3D-printed prosthetic legs. A person in need can have their remaining limb scanned at a medical facility with the facial recognition camera on an iPhone. The data can then be sent to the company, where specialists will print the leg and ship it back to the facility anywhere in the world, even in a war zone.

Denver-based medical device company Xtremity has taken a different approach to manufacturing prostheses that could more easily be fabricated even in remote, war-torn areas. The innovation that enabled them to do that is a proprietary, carbon-infused polymer that can build a thermoformable socket that can be fabricated in hours as opposed to weeks and can be reshaped or modified, allowing for easy adjustments.

All these examples make me proud that engineers are contributing so much toward making our world a better place to live in.