Green is definitely the color of the 21st century. Recently, I was attending the annual conference of the Society of Instrumentation and Control Engineers. The keynote was delivered by Dr. Tariq Samad of Honeywell and the President of the IEEE Control Systems Society. The talk was on various dimensions in advanced control – past, present, and future, and in particular Dr. Samad summarized some fascinating work being done in the natural resources industry on advanced control. Through his very interesting and engaging talk, my generally conservative brain went into green mode.
Dr. Samad gave a couple of examples of massive engineering undertakings that deployed highly sophisticated control strategies at unprecedented levels of innovation and complexity. The Olympic Dam mining operation in Australia is the largest PC-based deployment of digital control techniques in history, with over 500,000 I/O points. There are major applications of model-predictive control (control strategies where the controller has inherent knowledge of plant dynamics) in traditional coal power plants that will immediately reduce the harm from these plants and set the stage for the introduction to alternate power generation.
The net effect of his talk wasn’t so much that I learned more about control strategies for large engineering projects but it triggered a question in my mind that is still lingering in my head after two months – “What is green engineering?” It’s a simple enough question. On the one hand, one can point to hybrid cars, wind turbines, high-efficiency solar energy as the greatest examples of green engineering. And that seems to be the popular view these days. But in many ways, this question is significantly broader and deeper than who can invent Device X the fastest.
At its most visible, green engineering is fancy new vehicles but in reality, the true challenge of green engineering will be the transformation of traditional engineering as a whole to adapt to emerging complexities. At the 2009 Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) congress, the hottest topic of engineering discussion was not so much how do we build an electric car? – for the most part, we know how to do that already. The real challenges seemed to be, “Where do we plug the cars in?”, “What’s going to generate all the electricity needed for these cars?”, “What do we do with the literally hundreds of millions of wasted batteries that will result from a wide-spread deployment of electric vehicles?”
The challenge of green engineering will be to not throw away everything instantaneously but to deploy innovative thinking and approaches to increase efficiencies of all engineering systems, traditional and modern. Let’s face it, defending coal plants, and copper mines as somehow helping us stem the tide of environmental harm is not going to win friends among a lot of people advocating the green society. But to give true alternate energy options a fighting chance, we need to reduce the harm from traditional approaches. Dr. Samad brought home the point that indeed the science (e.g. advanced control techniques) that empowers next generation green vehicles is also empowering creative and timely conversion of conventional engineering. And it’s this totality of old and new schools of engineering that will give us a real chance in building a greener future.
Many look to increased efforts in high-fidelity modeling as an essential part of green engineering
Once again, you feel humbled by the enormity and complexity of challenges surrounding us. And once again, you think about your part in an intractable global problem. Over the past 20 years, this company has had a near singular focus on getting the math right and helping people use that math creatively. Recently, it has become abundantly clear that engineers and scientists need to rethink the way they approach problems. Development of high-fidelity models and more rigorous analysis seem to be paths well worth exploring for pretty much every industry. Of course, this has been great business for us but more importantly, for those of us trying to figure out how best to equip the engineers and scientists of vision with the tools to carry out their important work can also be part of the solution. Like Kermit the Frog so eloquently said, “It’s not easy being green.”
Dr. Tariq Samad’s column on the IEEE Control Systems Society Web site
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Green Engineering web site offers a more formal definition though its perspective is heavily influenced by “traditional” environmental engineering disciplines, it has a nice treatment of some fundamental meta-principles of green engineering.