Engineering a sustainable future
Policymakers and politicians face a balancing act – ensuring that their citizens’ quality of life is maintained in ways that do not jeopardize the health of our planet.
It’s not an easy goal to work towards, as we saw at the COP26 conference in Glasgow in November 2021. India’s last-minute weakening of the agreement language around the phasing out of coal is just one example of how countries struggle to see new ways forward that might enable them to meet multiple priorities.
ENGINEERING INNOVATIVE SUSTAINABLE SOLUTIONS
I believe that to move forward we need to shift our conversations. We can’t just talk about phasing out certain ways of producing energy or removing fossil-fuel-based carbon sources from products and processes.
What we need are conversations about how we can support new thinking and take action on the innovations that will enable us to produce commodities and other essentials without contributing to the impacts of climate change.
TRANSFORMATIONAL PRODUCTS, PROCESSES, AND TECHNOLOGIES
So how can we lead the way to sustainability?
One of the overarching goals of the Master of Engineering Leadership (MEL) in Sustainable Process Engineering is to introduce students to some of the process and product innovations with the potential to transform our planet. This is the foundation of the technical side of the program, where students choose one of three main areas of study: reactor and processing technologies, systems design and engineering, or sustainable processes and feedstocks.
Many engineering programs focus solely on technical education and do not give students insight into the many other factors that influence whether an innovation becomes a reality.
Our program’s courses on strategy, innovation, business and leadership give students a window into these other factors and a more holistic understanding of what’s needed to successfully launch a sustainable new product or process.
SCALING-UP SUSTAINABLE PRODUCTS AND PROCESSES
However, we always have to keep in mind that the best ideas for sustainable products, processes and technologies are of little value if they are not developed and implemented at scale.
A successful pilot project is just the start.
What we need is the full commercial development of the technologies that will transform our world – helping us economically capture carbon, create products from biomass rather than fossil fuels, and develop products that essentially convert all of the atomic contents of the source material into the product itself.
That’s why our program also emphasizes entrepreneurial thinking and equips students with the knowledge to advance ideas through development and commercialization. In our Venture Design Lab course, students learn about the essential technical and business considerations in process development and scale-up.
IMPLEMENTING INNOVATIONS AT SCALE
Sustainable Process Engineering students join an exciting ecosystem of world-class research and innovation at UBC and within the province.
UBC’s BioProducts Institute, for example, is pursuing ways to use waste biomass in a range of applications, from compact circuit boards to high-grade N95 masks. And BC is home to many companies working in this area – including Carbon Engineering, which captures carbon dioxide from the air for geologic storage or to create synthetic fuels.
Yes, our world is facing significant challenges.
But if we can equip the next generation of engineers with sustainable thinking and the knowledge of how to implement innovations at scale, we’ll be moving beyond the historic dichotomy of either economic development or environmental stewardship to a new model of using our earth’s resources sustainably.