Industries in Depth

Wishful thinking won't solve the world's problems. But engineering might

A temporary waste-collection point in Okayama Prefecture, Japan.

A waste-collection point in Japan, where the concept of "mottainai" encourages good resource management. Image: REUTERS/Issei Kato

Shunichi Miyanaga
Chairman of the Board, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries
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Decarbonizing Energy

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

The world is in the middle of an era of unprecedented change. And that is both exciting and challenging.

Governments face many pressing issues, from delivering a zero-carbon economy to addressing the issues created by population growth and urbanization.

For many businesses, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is providing new opportunities to develop innovative products that will work for the good of all.

It is important to recognize that there is no cure-all fix that will resolve the problems we face. Rather, it is many solutions working together that will enable sustained change. Uncovering solutions that are both practical and realistic will need a firm focus on science-led engineering, hard work and an appreciation of facts.

An energy strategy anchored in reality

Let’s take the environment, for example: discussion to date has focused on renewable energy as the key pathway to a low-carbon energy future. While we support the drive to develop renewable energy sources, we also appreciate that achieving a low or zero-carbon future requires a multi-faceted approach.

For example, wind and solar power generators will at times produce too much or too little energy since it is impossible to regulate when the sun shines or the wind blows. Switching to renewable energy sources therefore involves serious considerations, like overcoming intermittency and ensuring energy security, as well as balancing the economics.

Much emphasis has been placed on batteries as a means of storing surplus energy, but there are other ways of solving storage issues. Power-to-X technologies enable surplus energy generated by renewables to be stored and redeployed when and where it is needed. For example, power-to-mobility systems can use this extra energy to charge electric vehicles, and allow any surplus to be stored and fed back to the grid.

It is also important to remember that, despite the growing importance of renewables to the world’s power generating capacity, 74% of global primary energy demand is still expected to be met by coal, oil and gas in 2050.

And that means we need to find new ways of making fossil fuels cleaner and more efficient.

Carbon capture and storage technology – which isolates CO2 from industrial plants at source, preventing harmful emissions entering the Earth’s atmosphere – is an excellent example of this. The captured CO2 can either be stored or used in industrial applications, for example in areas such as oil extraction or producing dry ice and other chemicals.

But the wave of innovation doesn’t end there – it is never enough to accept the status quo. We also need to constantly seek out and deliver credible renewable energy solutions that can help to transform the future energy landscape.

The use of hydrogen in this context is a powerful example of how science is driving innovation in the energy industry.

Mixing hydrogen into our fuel sources can dramatically reduce emissions without disrupting generating capacity. This year, a new large-scale gas turbine using a 30% hydrogen fuel mix has been successfully tested, reducing CO2 emissions by 10%. And a trial is now underway in the Netherlands to convert an existing gas-fired power plant to hydrogen.

Multiple routes to change

All these technologies need to be developed in parallel if the world’s future energy needs are to be met.

The same is true of the transport sector and e-mobility in particular.

Currently, the rise of electric cars dominates global media headlines and would appear to be a standalone answer to air pollution. Cleaner individual cars are certainly a positive innovation, but they are not the only solution.

Air taxis, buses, intelligent traffic systems, a greater use of regional jets and automated transit systems will all have a role in reducing congestion.

It is a complex symphony of technologies working together that will drive convenience and sustainability in the mega-cities of the future.

Applying a Japanese mindset to waste

Another global challenge facing governments around the world is the cost and environmental pressure associated with increasing household and industrial waste.

Adopting the Japanese concept of mottainai is the perfect mindset to address this. Mottainai involves having respect for resources so they are used with gratitude and not exploited. Experts predict that at current growth rates, the human race could generate 11 million tonnes of solid waste each day by 2100.

Science, once again, can provide a practical answer. Waste-to-energy technology allows energy to be generated from solid waste, semi-solid waste discharged from urban incinerators or industrial plants, liquid waste like domestic sewage and gas waste produced in a refinery.

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Heat, too, is often wasted during industrial processes. And here there is a significant opportunity to improve efficiency at the same time as reducing emissions.

These are just a few examples of how science and engineering are addressing some of the world’s most pressing problems in an honest and pragmatic way.

One thing is clear: no one solution has all the answers. And numerous innovations need to work alongside each other to deliver the practical solutions that the world needs.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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Industries in DepthEnergy Transition
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