The development of engineering – a new direction

We say that the world’s engineers have made great strides ahead – they can do amazing stuff: Big, smart, sophisticated, shattering…. many words can appropriately be used.

The technology is getting ever higher – more and more grand scale, more and more unlike the world we live in. We can make big machines, construct huge stuctures that that be seen from the skies, make enourmous changes to the face of the Earth. It is becoming obvious that engineering and technology does not only improve the state of the world, it often and increasingly degrades it, although we sometimes do a bit of fixing and repairs. We use brute force instead of elegant intelligence, and it is not going right.

It is not all dark – there are fine things too – intelligent little machinery that helps us in our daily lives, elegant improvements enhancing the surroundings.

Much engineering is now becoming large scale – agriculture, petrol production, planes are getting bigger and bigger, ships are huge, we dig enourmous holes in the ground to find metals and oil, transport designs are ambitious, forestry is about stripping woodland with large machines, datasystems are getting bigger and bigger and more and more integrated with each other. Technology has become a fixation – it must be always bigger and bigger, more and more comprehensive. There is money to be made.

So let us consider for a moment what we are about to do. We are influencing our surroundings negatively, some say we are destroying the environment, we are driven by the hunt for profit to larger and larger developments. Modern society is built on the mantra of more and more technology. Much of it is oil driven, totally dependent upon oil.

Let us pause for a moment and see how nature around us works – the natural world we live in.

Plants and animals are efficient creatures, and many organisms in nature show strikingly good design for their intended function. They leave no waste, they develop constantly, they even disappear when they are not needed.

Algae are one example of a perfect design where the light of the rays of the sun are utilized fully. Researchers are now modelling future solar panels from algae, related to both materials and form. So if they succeed we will have clean, efficient, cheap energy based on the designs found in the sea. Natural development over time have shown us how, we just must find it first and then we can use it.

Algae are a major part of the Earth’s biomass and are found in many sizes and shapes almost everywhere. Photosynthesis is the most important process in the world, and algae have conversion rates for sunshine that are much higher than for the silicon we use for solar panels now. The light that hits the panel must stay in there, not being reflected, just like algae.

Research is going on in Trondheim, Norway to find out what the mechanisms are, how to build the function of the algae into modern solar panels. There are tens of thousands of species of algae, the technology is advanced, nanostructured, with highly evolved shell design, transparency for good light reception.

So engineering is copying things already found in nature. Another example is how leaves are positioned on trees to give efficient growing conditions for the tree. It seems we can use nature’s methods to make energy because nature is good at converting sunlight into energy.

What else is nature good at? Should we simulate nature when possible, even to the extent of letting nature do the work for us? Maybe make nature produce more than it needs so that we can reap the surplus.

Nature obviously already does what we are trying to do. The algae builds its own powerplant as it grows – thin hard shells in a symmetric well designed form. We could search out these structures and similar ones, copy them, even use their energy for our purposes.

The leaves on trees are not growing haphazardly, they have a given well distributed structure to optimize the energy they can have from the sunlight.

So why build what nature has already built – why not let engineering’s foremost task be to tap into the possibilities of nature and find what nature can give us?

Human engineering is amazing. We can build fantastic things – tiny, big, etc., whatever.  But do we really have to do it this way? Why not let nature do what it does and then harvest its bounty sustainably?

What is really going on in nature? The fact is that we hardly know!

We know about the sun and photosynthesis (some), wind (some), waves and running water (little), sound (nothing), the radiation and magnetic fields of the Earth (little), movements of matter (nothing), thermal energy (some). The Earth is a huge energy system, a huge producer of materials/biomass, an efficient machine producing no waste, making only what it needs.

May be humans should stop doing things on their own, stop being contrary to natural processes, stop designing huge destructive machines and projects.

Let us change our ways, find a new direction, find out what is there already, use it sustainably. It could be great stuff. It should also relieve the workload we have to put in so we can spend more time thinking, socializing and playing.

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