How Science And Engineering Are Tackling Solutions To Future Global Challenges Today

By Shunichi Miyanaga

The world is in the middle of an era of unprecedented change. And that is both exciting and challenging.

Governments and businesses alike face many pressing issues, from the creation of carbon-negative economies, to population growth and urbanization, to the automated future for which all kinds of workers must be prepared. No single solution will resolve the economic, technological or societal challenges we face; rather, a combination of many practical, interconnected solutions will create sustained change, allowing us to address the challenges head-on.

At Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Group, we as scientists and engineers have a specific approach: seeking solutions rooted in facts, data and today’s realities to develop innovative products and technologies that will work for the good of all.

A little hard work and an evidence-based approach to problem solving and engineering can help organizations of all types and sizes uncover practical, realistic solutions.

Improving Low-Carbon Energy Solutions

Discussions on the fight against climate change have largely focused to date on renewable energy as the key pathway to a low-carbon energy future. The drive to develop renewable energy sources is a key part of the approach, yet evidence also demonstrates that achieving a zero-carbon or carbon-negative future will require a multi-faceted approach.

For instance, since it is impossible to regulate sunshine or wind speed, wind and solar power generators will on occasion produce too much or too little energy. Switching to renewable energy sources therefore involves serious considerations, like overcoming intermittency, improving storage, ensuring energy security and maintaining affordability.

Elsewhere, businesses have focused primarily on the improvement of batteries as a means of storing surplus energy, but there are other ways to solve storage issues, such as redistributing power based on a community’s needs. Power-to-X technologies enable surplus energy to be stored and redeployed when and where it is needed – ensuring less power goes to waste.

For example, power-to-mobility systems could use excess energy to charge electric vehicles and then feed back the remainder of the surplus into the main grid. This solution solves for many fiscal and logistical challenges of the new energy grid, while also preventing similar problems from emerging as energy consumption continues to increase during the 21st century.

It is also important to remember that, despite the growing importance of renewables to global power generation, demand is still expected to be met by coal, oil and gas in 2050. The global energy industry is still creating the foundations of a low-carbon future, and that means fossil fuels need to be made cleaner and more efficient in their use today.

Carbon capture technology, which isolates CO2 from industrial plants at the source and prevents those harmful emissions from entering the Earth’s atmosphere, is an excellent example of a real-world technology making a difference today. That captured CO2 can be stored or used in industrial applications, such as in oil extraction or the production of dry ice and other chemicals.

The Future of Fuel

The wave of innovation, however, does not end with preventative techniques. Businesses may be practical, but it will never be enough to accept the status quo. The public and private sectors need to constantly seek out and deliver credible renewable energy solutions that can help to transform the industry landscape and accelerate the energy transition.

The use of hydrogen in this context is a powerful example of how science drives energy industry innovation. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, since because hydrogen fuel creates exhaust made of hot air and water vapor, it is carbon-neutral, thus drastically reducing its environmental impact.

In turn, making hydrogen part of a fuel source’s mix can dramatically reduce emissions without causing disruption to power generating capacity. This year, a new large-scale gas turbine using a 30 percent hydrogen fuel mix was successfully tested, reducing CO2 emissions by 10 percent. A trial is now in progress in Groningen, the Netherlands, at Vattenfall’s Magnum power plant, where Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems is working to convert an existing gas-fired power plant to one powered by hydrogen.

These pilot programs and experiments bring the world’s mission of becoming a low-carbon economy closer to reality, while ensuring that no fuel source or potential solution is eliminated as the world undergoes this complex energy transition.

Creating Options in Transportation

All these technologies need to be developed in parallel if the world’s future energy needs are to be met. The same is true of the transport sector and e-mobility. Currently, the rise of electric cars dominates global media headlines; while certainly a positive innovation, they are not a standalone solution to reducing air pollution.

Flying taxis, buses, intelligent traffic systems, increased use of regional jets and automated transit systems will all have a role in reducing congestion.

In the megacities of the future, a complex symphony of technologies will need to work together to achieve sustainability and keep commuters satisfied. Strong transportation networks and infrastructure that can be built quickly and maintained over long periods of time will serve as important bases for e-mobility, giving unscaled and individual transportation solutions the support to thrive.

A New Focus on Managing Waste

Another global challenge facing global leadership is the cost and environmental pressure associated with increasing household and industrial waste. Experts predict that at current growth rates, the human race could generate 11 million tons of solid waste each day by 2100. Adopting the Japanese mindset of mottainai may help to address this anticipated rise in waste. In essence, mottainai involves having respect for resources so they are not exploited, but used efficiently and with gratitude.

Hoornweg, Bhada-Taka & Kennedy, Nature, 2013

Since levels of waste are expected to increase over the next century, how can businesses and governments invoke the principles of mottainai while ensuring consumption demands are met? Science, once again, provides a practical solution. Waste-to-energy technology ensures energy can be generated from nearly every form of waste matter: solid waste, semi-solid waste discharged from urban incinerators or industrial plants, liquid waste like domestic sewage and gas waste from refineries.

Heat is also often wasted during industrial processes, so converting it into energy gives energy producers a significant opportunity to improve efficiency while reducing emissions.

These are just a few examples of how science and engineering are addressing some of the world’s most pressing problems pragmatically and in the present.

Amid all these visionary ideas in the energy, transportation and power sectors, it is clear that no single solution has all the answers. The onus is on companies and governments to create many innovations that can work in tandem alongside each other to deliver the practical solutions that the world needs.

This article was first published on the World Economic Forum and is part of the Annual Meeting 2019.

Shunichi Miyanaga is the President and CEO of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. (MHI), where he leads one of the largest manufacturing and engineering companies in the world with over 80,000 employees worldwide, consolidated sales of $40 billion, and products ranging from power systems, chemical plants, aircraft, ships, to industrial machinery.

A version of this article was previously published on Forbes BrandVoice.