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Engineers to the rescue

13 January 2011

A report published by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) last week suggests that engineers have a crucial role to play ameliorating the living conditions of billions of people as the world hurtles towards population overload. Population: One planet, too many people? – hailed by the IMechE as the first report of its kind by the engineering profession – says that unless the engineering solutions highlighted in the report are urgently implemented, then a predicted population of 9.4 billion people by the end of the century will “crush” the earth’s resources.

Energy, food, water, urbanisation and finance are five areas that will be significantly affected by population growth. These are dubbed Engineering Development Goals (EDG) and should be the next step for the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDG), says the report. Lead author, Tim Fox, who heads up energy, environment and climate change at the IMechE, warns that in less than four years, the MDGs will expire and, to date, there is nothing, except the report’s recommendations, to replace them.

The effects of population growth have been the subject of apocalyptic predictions since the start of the industrial revolution, and it might be easy to dismiss this report as the latest in a long line of dire warnings. However, to a degree, there is precedence in the Institution’s claim that engineers do, indeed, have some of the answers – if not to population control itself.

If you take a positive view of their contribution, Victorian engineers brought flood protection and sewer networks to large cities and railway infrastructures across the world, reducing the incidence of disease, mobilising populations and establishing seed economies. Whether the profession can scale-up its efforts in the face of much greater challenges posed by climate change, is questionable. But at least the ImechE has set the ball rolling.

Electrifying turnaround in Detroit
When GM showed its Chevrolet Volt at the Detroit Motor Show back in January of 2007, it was the only electric vehicle concept on display. At this year’s event it was proclaimed Car of the Year – a fast-track success story by any standard. Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, the all-electric Nissan Leaf has been named Car of the Year 2011 by European journalists; it was also one of three finalists for the Detroit accolade. And continuing its run of success, the Leaf also picked up the Ultra Low Carbon Award in the What Car? Car of the Year Awards 2011.

The Chevrolet Volt has a range of around 40 miles in electric drive mode, but has an extended range of around 360 miles, thanks to a small petrol engine that has the dual role of generating current for the electric motor and providing supplementary mechanical propulsion.

Going on sale in limited markets in December, the Volt has a US price tag of $40,280. It is due to arrive in Europe as the Opel Ampera later this year and as the Vauxhall Ampera early in 2012, when it is expected to cost around £29,000 – reducing to around £24,000 with the UK government subsidy. Similarly, the Nissan Leaf price tag is around £29,000 - £24,000 with the subsidy.

Les Hunt
Editor


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