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As much as we all pine for the years of flash mobs and flip-phones, there’s no denying that the world’s changed. With warming oceans, energy security and insectageddon (insect apocalypse) peeking around the corner, it will only change further. That’s why sustainability research, including the work being done at Deakin’s Faculty of Science, Engineering and Built Environment (SEBE) – is more important than ever. The Earth is full of wonderful stuff, and we’d like to keep it that way.
Engineering is helping to revolutionise industries today, paving the way for a greener and more sustainable future, and those at Deakin are leading the charge. It’s clear we need action immediately – we caught up with three experts to bring you the scoop on how engineering is at the forefront of the world’s navigation into an uncertain future.
‘Engineering’s fundamental to how we live our lives,’ says Professor Sally McArthur, a biomanufacturing expert at the Institute for Frontier Materials.
‘When we look at sustainability, we need to look at the whole system, and engineers are champion systems thinkers,’ she says.
Prof McArthur points out recycling perfectly encapsulates how a system should work. Glass, plastic and metal is collected from our homes, processed without excess cost (in energy or materials) by cheerful robots and automated scanners, and processed into something useful, like cat litter or swimwear.
Engineers are there every step of the way, developing and advancing the circular economy that underpins everything with automated systems, sophisticated sensors and processes that make this grand and green miracle feasible, without breaking the bank.
It goes deeper than that, points out Dr Bipasha Kashyap, Lecturer in Mechatronics at Deakin’s School of Engineering.
‘It’s not always intrinsically tied to your traditional idea of ‘sustainability’ and engineering – take, for example, [my research in] the emergence of IoT-Enabled Wearables in healthcare,’ she says. The development of IoT-Enabled Wearables* – think your FitBit or Apple Watch, but smarter – allow medical professionals to monitor patients in real time, empower patients by giving them control over their own data, generate huge amounts of useful information and help reduce wastage and increase energy efficiency in hospitals around the country.
*IoT is an acronym for the ‘Internet of Things,’ believe it or not.
Engineering – and sustainable engineering in particular – isn’t always directly tied to traditional ideas in the field.
‘Some [people] view engineering as solely focused on creating complex machines or structures, without even considering the environmental impact,’ says Azra Sourjah, PhD student (Material Sciences) and 2022’s Three-Minute Thesis IFM Winner.
‘This has now been challenged by sustainable engineering, by emphasising solutions that not only function effectively but also adhere to eco-friendly principles,’ she continues.
It’s not all about crafting the most impressive windmill, trebuchet (similar to a catapult) or ziggurat (pyramid-like temple tower) anymore. As the world and our comprehension of it has rapidly changed, so has our understanding and appreciation of engineering and its many specialised fields.
Take the abovementioned IoT-Enabled Wearable, for example. While the results may not be as overt, the indirect implications for a sustainable future are staggering.
‘I believe that these solutions would often lead to long term cost savings, improved efficiency and reduced ecological footprints,’ says Azra Sourjah.
She’s right. With programs like REACH striving to revolutionise battery, biomanufacturing and carbon fibre technologies, technological flow-on effects over the next decade are set to be significant. Many of the country’s independent think tanks are thinking a shift to renewables will help slash energy costs.
‘[Engineering] can be whatever you want it to be,’ says Prof McArthur. ‘It is all about solving problems and exploring what can be and how we want to live our lives.’
Remember Samsung’s ‘our phone batteries keep combusting’ scandal? This could help fix that. Azra Sourjah’s work could have helped that – and plenty more.
‘My research is centred around developing new solid ionic electrolytes, using new materials called organic ionic plastic crystals (OIPCs) for energy applications, especially next generation batteries,’ she says.
Non-flammable, less toxic and more sustainably synthesised – solid state OIPC-powered batteries are just one part of a better future.
‘My focus is on leading the Institute for Frontier materials and we work on how to use waste materials to create new products,’ says Prof McArthur.
‘It might be recycling batteries, carpet or even sewage, but we can create valuable new products that will support a more sustainable future and create new jobs at the same time,’ she continues.
It’s all about problem-solving, if you’re the kind of person who relishes a challenge and wants to help shape a sustainable future, a career in engineering may be the field for you. With a projected 100,000 Australian jobs in engineering expected by 2030, studying engineering at Deakin might be the next best idea since the .mp3.
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