We need carbon neutral solutions

Some truths are self-evident. Human-influenced climate change impacts every country on every continent. It is diminishing our health and prosperity, effects that will worsen without intervention.

As a member of the global engineering community, McMaster Engineering  accepts its responsibility to develop carbon neutral solutions for the betterment of humanity.

We are committed to the development of carbon neutral solutions that will drive disruptive innovations, invigorate the economy and improve the overall well being of our nation, society and our world.

An example of a carbon neutral effort is offered by the McMaster Engineering Computing Infrastructure Research Centre (CIRC). It develops disruptive technologies that eliminate wasteful practices in data centres that consume about 3% of energy produced worldwide.

A staggering 90% or more of the energy used by a data centre is unnecessary, since it drives support equipment that is deliberately kept on regardless of usage. CIRC’s mission is to eliminate this wastage by implementing holistic design, operations and maintenance approaches, and implementing across the board automation.

Ray LaPierre, professor and chair of the Department of Engineering Physics, is developing more efficient solar cells. Those typical bluish solar panels we see convert only 15 to 20 per cent of solar energy into electricity. Ideally, those panels should be black so that they are able to absorb as much sunlight as possible, rather than losing as much as 30 per cent due to reflection.

Ray envisions a world where sunny skies turn solar panels the darkest of blacks. Central to His research program are nanowires, structures whose diameter is 1/1000th the size of a human hair.

Although their per capita consumption will diminish, we’ll keep using fossil fuels as an energy source for some time.  As a society, we haven’t focused enough on energy efficiency.  In many applications, 70% of the potential energy that can be harnessed from fossil fuels is wasted to our environment.

James Cotton, professor of mechanical engineering, is developing methods to capture that waste heat so that it can be reused. For instance, his lab converts waste heat from commercial ovens into electricity so that it can be used to power restaurants using thermoelectric materials. Jim wants the waste heat recovery from your home heating furnace to power your home or heat it at a later time.

The global emphasis on renewable energy sources is on target. However, these sources alone will not be able to move our world towards a carbon-free future. Many forms of renewable energy, such as solar and wind, are intermittent and must be supplemented by other energy sources.

Post-Fukushima, as Japan and Germany have scaled back on nuclear power, they are relying more on fossil fuels, and in case of Germany on coal. Therefore, if we’re serious about becoming carbon free, we must carefully implement nuclear energy solutions.

Top climate scientists, like Dr. James Hansen, state, “No energy system is without downsides. We ask only that energy system decisions be based on facts, and not on emotions and biases that do not apply to 21st century nuclear technology.” They exhort us to “seriously to embrace the development and deployment of safer nuclear power systems as one among several technologies that will be essential to any credible effort to develop an energy system that does not rely on using the atmosphere as a waste dump”.

Carbon neutral solutions cannot be based on wishful thinking.  We need all hands on deck and pivot our focus towards diverse solutions. This will require us engineers and scientists to educate policymakers to broaden their tent so that they become more inclusive about energy production pathways.

See also: CaFIN McMaster Declaration.

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