To those outside the sector, engineering is amazing. Watching something go from an idea into a physical reality is incredible and, frankly, overlooked. Our planet looks the way it does today in no small part due to engineers, with the current environmental crisis it will be engineers we once again turn to resolve the problems and create solutions.
So what sort of things will environmental engineers be working on?
Fossil fuels will remain in use for some time to come, and environmental engineers are crucial in these projects. Whilst the products can be polluting, engineers can minimize the risk at every stage, from correctly locating and stabilizing a drilling platform, to preventing spills, to designing CO2 scrubbers and carbon dioxide capture projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon capture is a growing area, with many companies entering the space. One use for captured CO2 is a pressurizing gas to force oil and gas back out of the ground and reduce the overall energy cost of extraction.
As we move away from fossil fuels and into renewables, our engineers once again come to the fore. For example, solar panel efficiencies are increasing, while manufacturing costs are simultaneously decreasing. Utility-scale solar projects are now cost competitive, if not cheaper, than fossil-fuel power plants, and they have no fuel requirements other than the sunshine delivered to them for free. The same is true of wind technology; individual turbine output is now approaching 10 megawatts. Every technology brings potential issues though: solar panel recycling can be problematic, and wind turbines cause bird deaths. It is the job of the engineer to minimize disruption through innovative design and correct placement of these technologies.
Efficiency won’t solve all our problems though, and mitigation is essential. For instance, municipal solid waste landfills produce methane and other greenhouse gases which contribute to global warming – gas capture is mandated by regulation at larger landfills, and the gas can be used to generate electricity. Another potential environmental impact of solid waste landfills is the threat of contamination to soil and groundwater beneath the facility. Every situation is different, and engineers are responsible for minimizing environmental impacts and maximizing benefits.
There is no doubt that being an environmental engineer in 2019 is a hugely exciting and challenging career. Their work spans multiple disciplines, and they tackle the biggest problems in the world. Whatever the future of our planet is, a lot of it will be down to the skill and ingenuity of environmental engineers.