Month: October 2012

Impact vs. breakthrough

Last week I was at a meeting to recommend the award of research grants to scientists and engineers at universities.  Weighing the relative merits of research proposals from physical scientists and from engineers is a little like trying to compare chalk and cheese.  The scientists at such meetings tend to argue that none of the engineering research proposals will lead to scientific breakthroughs, which is one criterion for the awarding of grants; while engineers might suggest that the societal impact of scientific research proposals are intangible and remote.  There is an element of truth in both perspectives since broadly speaking engineering is about the application of science for the benefit of society.  Scientists need to make breakthroughs so that there are new ideas for engineers to apply; however often it is not clear how to apply the breakthrough beneficially, reliably, safely and cheaply, thus engineers also to perform research to establish the best route to the application of existing breakthroughs.

Or to quote Einstein: ‘scientists investigate that which already is; engineers create that which has never been’.

Small is beautiful

In the context of using algae to produce aviation fuel (see my previous post), ‘small is beautiful’ to cite the title of the famous book by E.F. Schumacher.  As a society we have tended towards achieving perceived economies of scale that lead to a uniformity of approach and a lack of diversity. ‘Perceived’ because often the boundary for the economic calculation is defined in a way that excludes the entropy demanded by the second law of thermodynamics and which should be included on the deficit side of the calculation.  Engineers learn about drawing appropriate boundaries for systems and looking for the source of entropy creation.  Sometimes, perhaps as in the case of the algae-based biofuels, we are unaware of the form and magnitude of the entropy being generated and hence there is a considerable risk that we will be surprised when we find out about it.  The entropy might take the form of heat, disorder, pollution, climatic disruption or combinations of these phenomena. So, pursuing a diverse set of approaches at a modest level, reduces the risk of an unpleasant surprise with substantial ecological and, or financial consequences.

Algae-powered aircraft

Recently, I attended an event organised by Airbus which included a film about their vision of aviation in 2050 followed by a question and answer session with their VP for Engineering in the UK, Neil Scott.  A strong theme that I took away from the event was maintaining air transport as fossil fuels become scarce and expensive through the use of oceanic algae farmed and harvested to generate biofuels.  This could be a good solution but we will need to consider the environmental impact of the massive level of ocean agriculture required to supply our airline system.  Airbus propose a more balanced, diverse approach to sourcing biofuel in this short video on their website:; so perhaps I took away the wrong message from the event I attended.

[Photo from