21st Century's Grand Challenges for Engineering

February 19, 2008

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With input from people around the world, an international group of leading technological thinkers was asked to identify the "Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century." Last week, the National Academy of Engineering revealed the conclusions.

Engineering recorded some of its grandest accomplishments in the last century alone. Between 1900 and 2000, the world saw for the first time a number of inventions that we generally take for granted today: automobiles, highways, televisions, refrigeration, airplanes, spacecraft, phones, computers, the Internet, laser and fiber optics— including many others previously compiled in the National Academy of Engineering (NAE)'s list of the 20 greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century.

Yet for all those advances, the 21st century poses challenges as formidable as any from centuries past. The problems are currently more obvious than the potential solutions.

The world's engineers are seeking ways to put knowledge into practice to meet these grand challenges.

A committee selected by the NAE announced on Friday a list of the 14 most important engineering projects for the future — what its members are calling the "Grand Challenges For Engineering." The panel, some of the most accomplished engineers and scientists of their generation, was established in 2006 and met several times to discuss and develop the list of challenges. The list was unveiled late last week by the diverse committee of experts, convened at the request of the United States National Science Foundation (NSF).

The NAE committee's top 14 "Grand Engineering Challenges," which are divided into four themes — sustainability, health, reducing vulnerability and the joy of living — are as follows:

Make Solar Energy Economical Though the sun out-powers anything that human technology could ever produce, exploiting its power is not without challenges. "Overcoming the barriers to widespread solar power generation will require engineering innovations in several arenas — for capturing the sun's energy, converting it to useful forms and storing it for use when the sun itself is obscured," says the NAE.

Provide Energy from Fusion Although human-engineered fusion has been demonstrated on a small scale, the NAE notes, "the challenge is to scale up the process to commercial proportions, in an efficient, economical and environmentally benign way."

Develop Carbon Sequestration Methods Carbon sequestration is the capture of carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels and storing it safely away from the atmosphere. Several underground possibilities have been investigated, and logical places include old gas and oil fields. Concerns about leaks, however, will lead engineers to continue working on ways to capture and store excess carbon dioxide.

Manage the Nitrogen Cycle "Human-induced changes in the global nitrogen cycle pose engineering challenges just as critical as coping with the environmental consequences of burning fossil fuels for energy," the NAE says. "Engineers can help restore balance to the nitrogen cycle with better fertilization technologies and by capturing and recycling waste."

Provide Access to Clean Water The world's water supplies are facing new threats. Affordable, advanced technologies and improved strategies — desalination, nano-osmosis, recycled water, reducing water use — could make a difference for millions of people around the world.

Restore and Improve Urban Infrastructure Infrastructure in the U.S. and many other countries is aging and failing, and such funding has been insufficient to repair and replace it. "Engineers of the 21st century face the formidable challenge of modernizing the fundamental structures that support civilization," says the NAE. "Good design and advanced materials can improve transportation and energy, water and waste systems, and also create more sustainable urban environments."

Advance Health Informatics "Health and biomedical informatics encompass issues from the personal to global, ranging from thorough medical records for individual patients to sharing data about disease outbreaks among governments and international health organizations," according to the NAE. "Maintaining a healthy population in the 21st century will require systems-engineering approaches to redesign care practices and integrate local, regional, national and global health informatics networks."

Engineer Better Medicines Although some aspects of the personalized-medicine approach are in place for some diseases, multiple challenges still remain in the quest for a widespread effective system of personalized medicine. "They will be addressed by the collaborative efforts of researchers from many disciplines, from geneticists to clinical specialists to engineers, who are developing new systems to use genetic information, sense small changes in the body, assess new drugs and deliver vaccines," the NAE points out.

Reverse-Engineer the Brain The intersection of engineering and neuroscience promises great advances in health care, manufacturing and communication. Figuring out how the brain works and improving sophisticated computer simulations will offer rewards beyond building smarter computers. Such advances pay dividends for medical devices and for the brain itself.

Prevent Nuclear Terror Nuclear security represents one of the most urgent policy issues of the 21st century, according to the NAE. "In short, engineering shares the formidable challenges of finding all the dangerous nuclear material in the world, keeping track of it, securing it, and detecting its diversion or transport for terrorist use." All these have engineering components; some are technical and others are systems challenges.

Secure Cyberspace In addition to preventing identity theft online, critical systems in banking, national security and physical infrastructure could be at risk. Yet research and development for security systems has not progressed much beyond "cobbling together software patches when vulnerabilities are discovered," the NAE contends. Engineering must help develop innovations for addressing myriad cyber-security priorities.

Enhance Virtual Reality Virtual reality is becoming a powerful tool in many specialized fields. Yet while advances have been made, virtual reality still falls short of some of its more ambitious applications. Fine-grained details of the virtual environment are impossible to reproduce precisely, and, in particular, placing realistic "virtual people" in the scene to interact with the user poses a formidable challenge.

Advance Personalized Learning Personalized learning — in which instruction is tailored to a student's individual needs — has gained momentum in recent years due to a growing appreciation for individual aptitudes. Ongoing research in neuroscience is providing new insights into the intricacies of neural processes underlying learning, offering clues to further refine individualized instruction. Solutions will require contributions of people from many disciplines, and engineers will have roles in most aspects.

Engineer the Tools of Scientific Discovery The distinction between scientists and engineering may be blurry, but engineers participate in the scientific process of discovery in many ways. Awesome experiments and missions of exploration always need engineering expertise to design the tools, instruments and systems that make it possible to acquire new knowledge about the physical and biological worlds. In this century, engineers will continue to partner with scientists in the great quest for understanding many unanswered profound questions.

The NAE committee decided not to rank these challenges, each of which is discussed in much more detail on the NAE Web site. The non-profit organization, a part of the U.S. National Academies — which also includes the Institute of Medicine, National Research Council and the National Academy of Sciences — is offering the public an opportunity to vote on which one they think is most important and to provide comments at the project Web site.


Grand Challenges for Engineering The National Academy of Engineering, Feb. 15, 2008

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