Skip to main content

The grand challenges of engineering

24 August 2015

Nearly a decade ago, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), in the United States, released a list of engineering’s most important challenges for the future. After many months of consultation and research, the NAE released their final list of 14 engineering ‘grand challenges’. These challenges represent some of the most exciting research prospects for students considering undertaking a Masters in Engineering in Australia, and more specifically, a Master of Engineering Management with SCU Online.

Make solar energy economical

While only a fraction of the sun’s energy reaches the earth, that still provides 10,000 times more energy than the earth needs for commercial purposes. By comparison, our current reliance on fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas is both expensive and unsustainable. The sooner we can engineer cost-effective, reliable and easily adopted methods of distributing solar energy, the better.

Provide energy from fusion

We might not have the internal pressure of the sun, but we have the technology to recreate heat thousands of times hotter. Engineers have already created small-scale fusion reactions using deuterium and lithium, both drawn from seawater. The challenge here is to convert this into a reliable source of energy.

Develop carbon sequestration methods

While scientists and engineers are already working on ways to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we create, removing existing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere represents another challenge. The solution won’t be simple, but the large amount of sedimentary rock sitting at deeper than 800 metres, as well as the number of empty or near empty oil fields around the globe provide two promising avenues of enquiry for storing excess carbon.

Manage the nitrogen cycle

Excess amounts of nitrogen in the atmosphere caused by human intervention have contributed to an increase in pollution, acid rain and global warming – just like carbon dioxide. The challenge here lies in reducing the amount of nitrogen in the atmosphere and working to find ways of reducing our creation of nitrogen without negatively impacting agriculture.

Provide access to clean water

The problem isn’t the limited amount of water on earth – the problem is that it isn’t necessarily in the right places. Even when clean drinking water is available, political and economic borders can still prevent people from accessing it. Lack of access to clean water currently stands as one of humanity’s biggest killers. For engineers, the challenge is to break down those borders to give every human access to fresh, clean water.

Restore and improve urban infrastructure

Our roads. rails and service systems can’t last forever – urban infrastructure needs to be constantly renewed and improved in order to cater for rapidly expanding populations. Major challenges for engineering will include making cities easier to travel in, and using sustainable and affordable transport options.

Advance health informatics

One of the great challenges for systems engineers is to create a completely digitised system of health care records – from local patient records right up to tracing and sharing information about contagious and deadly diseases around the world; without compromising patient privacy.

Engineer better medicines

Many leading scientists and engineers have argued that one of the greatest challenges facing medical engineering is the creation of completely personalised medical regimes. Currently, many of the medications and treatments we receive are standardised to fit the largest possible number of people – but as we continue to understand more about the human body, we open the doors to personalising and increasing the effectiveness of medical treatment.

Reverse engineer the brain

Trying to build an artificial intelligence (AI) machine without observing a real brain is very much like trying to build a flying machine without observing an actual bird – this may explain why attempts to build an AI machine have not gone much further than machines that can beat you in chess. Many engineers agree that one of the greatest challenges for the future comes in the form of understanding the human brain and using that knowledge to build better AI machines.

Prevent nuclear terror

For as long as humans have been experimenting with nuclear energy, we have also battled with the concept of nuclear terrorism. These fears have been heightened as we entered the digital age, with information on how to use nuclear technology to cause havoc easier to access than ever. The challenge here for engineers is to establish methods to safely use nuclear energy without allowing it to fall into the wrong hands – including creating safe ways of monitoring nuclear plants and borders for movement of plutonium.

Secure cyberspace

Our world has come to depend on the internet for everything from banking to booking flights. Building an effective and responsive security web around it is one of engineering’s next big challenges.

Enhance virtual reality

Virtual reality is so much more than a special effect in sci-fi films. It’s an immersive illusion, enabling you to experience something without being anywhere near it. Whilst the concept of virtual reality concerts and sporting events is undoubtedly cool, it’s the potential of virtual reality to be used in training in highly specialised and delicate fields such as medicine, psychiatry and aviation where the real value in innovation lies.

Advance personalised learning

First it was whole-word, then it was phonics. The debate between the two most effective ways of teaching children to read has raged on for years – but the reality is, each learner is an individual. As neuroscience increases our understanding of the human brain, it becomes the role of engineers to take these findings and help design new and effective personalised learning systems.

Engineer the tools of scientific discovery

Scientists might get all the glory, but we can’t forget the engineers who make their discoveries possible through new and improved scientific equipment and techniques.

While progress has been made, we’re still a long way from completing many of these challenges.

Think you have the potential to address the grand challenges of engineering? We need the best and brightest minds of the next generation to tackle them – and completing an Online Master of Engineering Management puts you in the best position possible to action real innovation and change around the world.

Call us on 1300 589 882 today to find out more.