How Engineers Can Help Protect Earth From Worsening Climate Change

Technologies such as SaaS and IoT can play major roles

4 min read
A photo of green vegetation with glass globe sitting in the foreground.
iStockphoto

Earth Day, which is celebrated annually on 22 April, aims to drive transformative change by educating people about what they can do to help. The day reminds us of the need to protect our planet and its ecosystems against the worsening climate crisis.

Our planet is no longer the same as it was even just a decade ago. The climate crisis is threatening people across the world, as well as every species of animal and plant life. We need to address the crisis now in a sustainable way. Fortunately, we still have a narrow window of opportunity to alter the Earth’s climate path, and I believe we can do it.


Climate change is a global societal crisis that is causing devastating consequences. Its costs have been projected as high as US $23 trillion in reduced annual global economic output, according to Swiss Re, a reinsurance company. Multifaceted collective efforts are necessary to address the crisis.

Engineers and technologists can and should play major roles in creating a greener planet, creating tools that address environmental degradation.

HOW THE CRISIS AFFECTS US

In the past few years, we’ve witnessed devastating cases of extreme weather all over the world, including deadly floods, massive forest fires, and severe droughts. Lives and businesses are being severely affected, and the cost of recovering after each event continues to mount.

The climate crisis is also having a severe effect on the planet, which is being battered by pollution, deforestation, and soil degradation.

About 7 million people every year die from diseases caused by air pollution, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and acute respiratory infections, according to the World Health Organization. Ninety-nine percent of the global population breathes in air that exceeds WHO-guideline limits on pollutants, with low- and middle-income countries suffering from the highest exposures. More than half the world’s people live in urban areas, yet only 12 percent of cities achieve WHO guidelines for air quality. To create a sustainable environment, we need to contain air pollution.

Deforestation is contributing to climate change. Trees capture and store atmospheric carbon and help cool the globe’s temperature. Deforestation has caused the Amazon rainforest and similar areas to lose their ability to recover from disturbances such as drought, wildfires, and human development, according to a recent article published in Scientific American. The loss of the Amazon rainforest would cause large-scale drying across the region. In response, the circulation of the atmosphere could change—which would alter weather patterns around the world, the article says.

About 95 percent of food production relies on topsoil. The soil also helps to address the climate crisis, as it stores more carbon than the world’s plants combined. The microbes and minerals in soil systems regulate water, cycle nutrients, filter pollutants, physically support plants, and sequester greenhouse gasses.

But Earth’s soil is being spoiled and degraded, presenting us with several risks. According to a 2017 United Nations–supported study, a third of the planet’s land is severely degraded, and fertile soil is being lost at an alarming rate.

The climate crisis has serious health consequences, the WHO warned in its recent COP24 report. Direct health impacts include an increase in respiratory and cardiovascular disease and injuries or death due to extreme weather events. Climate change also causes indirect effects on health, such as food and water insecurity, the spread of climate-sensitive infectious diseases, and population displacement.

TECHNOLOGICAL SOLUTIONS

There are many ways that IEEE members from the technical and scientific community can help. Engineers and computer professionals can use information technologies such as cloud-based software-as-a-service (SaaS), Earth’s digital twin, and the Internet of Things (IoT) to help make buildings, energy production, farms, health care, and manufacturing greener.

SaaS platforms, such as Project Canary of Denver, help energy companies track, measure, and score the impact of methane and other volatile organic compounds on the environment across the energy supply chain. Canary uses high-fidelity spectroscopy-based methane detection and emissions quantification for the oil and gas sectors. The SaaS platform also uses laser-based gas analyzers to detect methane, formaldehyde, and more.

The IoT has vast potential to address sustainability by making energy systems more connected, improving their operational efficiency, and reducing the carbon intensity of buildings, manufact­uring, and transportation. It also can lower energy consumption through smart operations and improve resource utilization. By using IoT-equipped sensors, deforestation and poaching can be monitored. IoT food container tags can reduce food and water waste.

Engineers and technologists can and should play major roles in creating a greener planet with technology that addresses environmental degradation.

Using a digital model of the Earth—or digital twin—environmental impacts can be studied. A new model developed by the European Commission’s Destination Earth initiative is designed to track the impact of humans on water, food, and energy management. Data collected through the digital twin can help predict environmental impacts and enable remedial measures to be taken.

Artificial intelligence, data science, and distributed ledger technology can play major roles as well.

Researchers are developing smart materials, next-generation batteries, autonomous vehicles, carbon capture and storage, hydrogen-powered fuel cells, precision agriculture, and 4D printing that might help solve environmental problems.

Although information technologies and similar tools leave their own environmental footprint, they are often small compared with their positive contribution toward creating a greener planet. And efforts are underway to make the technologies greener.

CALL TO ACTION

Undoubtedly, environmental degradation is a complex, global problem and the defining challenge of our time. Our inaction could jeopardize the well-being of current and future generations.

We must envision and ensure a sustainable future through responsible planning, development of effective solutions leveraging technological advances, actionable regulations, and sound practices. We need an environmental mindset as well as systemic transformation and individual behavioral changes.

Let’s be optimistic in what we do. Optimism can drive us to achievement. As German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said: “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.”

If we don’t care about our environment and the future of our planet, then who will? Let’s treat every day as Earth Day. Let’s invest in creating and sustaining a better environment than the one we inherited.

Let’s pledge—and act now—to create a cleaner, greener planet. If not now, when?

The Conversation (1)
Thomas Valone25 Apr, 2022
M

Nice article that stays in the middle of the road with conventional refs but does not address the CAUSE of climate change and specifically, global warming. Thanks to Dr. Jim Hansen, we now have a linear relationship of CO2 to temperature for engineers. See my chapter in Modern Advances in Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences Vol. 5, on ResearchGate https://tinyurl.com/climateforecast. It is time for engineers to come to the aid of their world by demanding GIGATON carbon capture to remove the heat-trapping blanket stifling our world (290 ppm pre-industrial CO2 up 42% to 412 ppm now is intolerable). For visual engineers, see https://tinyurl.com/CO2heat which is a YouTube video to convince the skeptics that CO2 is the heat trapper. My articles prove that 412 ppm is 42% above the maximum CO2 levels ever seen in 400,000 years, which is why we are heating up about 1 degree C every 20 years now, for the rest of this century, and beyond. Maps and charts are in my J of Geoscience and Env. Protection, March 2021 article: https://tinyurl.com/GlobalTempCO2. Billionaires and wealthy countries need to start GIGATON carbon capture NOW. No more "million ton" per year nonsense. Forty Billion of tons of CO2 are added to the world's atmosphere EVERY year. The earth needs CCS on a larger GIGATON level than that to make a dent and start a cooling trend worldwide.

- T. Valone, PhD, PE, Integrity-Research.org

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
Vertical
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay
Blue

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.

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