In This Issue
Spring Bridge on International Frontiers of Engineering
March 15, 2018 Volume 48 Issue 1

Editor’s Note: Expanding the Frontiers Internationally

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Author: Janet Hunziker

After the winter issue of The Bridge featured papers from the 2017 US Frontiers of Engineering (FOE) symposium, the FOE program gets another turn in the spotlight with this issue featuring papers primarily from the bilateral FOE meetings.

The NAE has five bilateral FOE programs: with Germany, Japan, India (currently on hiatus), China, and the EU. These meetings are held biennially, with the exception of the EU-US FOE, which is held twice every three years. The NAE works with a number of wonderful partner organizations to carry out these events: the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the Engineering Academy of Japan, the Indo-US Science and Technology Foundation, the Chinese Academy of Engineering, and the European Council of Applied Sciences, Technologies, and Engineering.

Each 2½-day symposium covers four topics of mutual interest determined by the symposium cochairs and an organizing committee composed of early-career engineers from both sides plans the program. To facilitate cross-cultural exchange, the bilateral FOEs are smaller than the US event, with 60 (instead of 100) attendees, 30 from each side, but the format is similar, with four topic sessions, poster sessions, technical or cultural tours, and many opportunities for informal interactions. Locations alternate between the United States and the partner countries.

It was only a few years after the first US FOE symposium in 1995 that the NAE received an inquiry from the German-American Academic Council Foundation (GAAC) about starting a joint FOE program, resulting in the launch of the German-American FOE (GAFOE) symposium series in 1998. When the GAAC was disbanded a few years later, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation assumed partnership responsibilities, making GAFOE the bilateral FOE program with the longest history. Additional bilateral FOE programs were started in subsequent years: with Japan (2000), India (2008), China (2009), and the European Union (2010).

There are over 4,000 alumni of the Frontiers of Engineering program worldwide. The 95 FOE alumni elected to the NAE since the Frontiers program’s inception include 12 speakers at bilateral FOEs. Other outcomes reported by bilateral FOE alumni include exchange visits and joint projects. In fact, a US attendee of the 2003 GAFOE recently informed us that she is still collaborating with a German researcher she met at the meeting.

Furthermore, based on their experience working with the NAE, some of our partner organizations have started their own Frontiers programs with other countries. For example, the Humboldt Foundation has Frontiers of Research programs with Brazil, Great Britain, Israel, India, Japan, and China. And the Royal Academy of Engineering has a Frontiers of Engineering for Development with participants from developing countries.

The primary US sponsors for the bilateral FOE meetings are The Grainger Foundation and the National Science Foundation. In addition, the US programs could not have continued without the support of the Department of Defense, DARPA, Microsoft, Cummins, individual donors, and US companies and institutions that have stepped up to host the meetings. For example, GE Aviation and the University of California, Davis, hosted the 2017 GAFOE and 2017 EU-US FOE, respectively.

The six papers in this issue reflect the breadth of topics covered at Frontiers of Engineering meetings. At the 2017 GAFOE symposium, in a session on gene editing and its applications, Luisa Bortesi (Maastricht University) gave a presentation on tailor-made plants using next-generation molecular scissors. In her paper she describes site-specific nucleases, which can be thought of as “molecular scissors” that can be programmed to cut DNA at a predetermined site on the genome. The CRISPR/Cas system is the most promising of these. When the technology is applied to plants, it can introduce mutations that enlarge grain size to increase crop productivity, change flower color, or make a plant pathogen-resistant. Bortesi’s article introduces the applications, drawbacks, and future outlook of this technology, with an emphasis on use in plants.

The next paper, by Gabrielle Gaustad (Golisano Institute for Sustainability, Rochester Institute of Technology), was delivered in a session on energy storage at the 2017 China-America FOE. Her presentation covered end-of-life and recycling issues related to energy storage devices—lithium ion batteries (LIBs), in particular—from a sustainability perspective. She notes that since their introduction for commercial use in the 1990s, LIBs are now used in a variety of consumer electronic devices such as laptops, cell phones, digital cameras, e-readers, and electric vehicles. As a result, sustainability challenges such as depletion of critical metals and minerals and end-of-life waste management have emerged. Her paper identifies options for reuse, remanufacturing, and recycling in order to distribute costs and reduce overall environmental impacts.

Branko Kerkez (University of Michigan) also pre-sented at the 2017 GAFOE meeting, in the session titled Streams of Water and Information: Managing Water Supply, Treatment, and Delivery in the 21st Century. In his paper he describes how the Internet of Things in the form of real-time monitoring and data analytics can reshape the management of water systems. For example, information technology can play an important role in monitoring and maintaining drinking water treatment and conveyance systems, which account for nearly 2 percent of the US energy budget. Managing pollutants in storm water is another critical issue. In lieu of replacing aging infrastructure, technologies utilizing wireless nodes, sensors, and valves can be deployed to existing systems to remotely control water flow. Embedding intelligence in the management of water systems will be an important factor in meeting the NAE Grand Challenge for Engineering of restoring and improving urban infrastructure.

What if travel through the solar system could be made faster and more affordable by a revolutionary propulsion method? Sini Merikallio (with the Finnish Meterological Institute at the time of her presentation), described such a possibility in the 2017 EU-US FOE session on technologies for space exploration. In her paper (coauthored for this issue with Pekka Janhunen), she explains the electric solar wind sail, or E-sail, which is based on Coulomb repulsion between a positively charged sail interacting with solar wind protons. She highlights several possibilities that could be realized with this new propulsion method, such as supporting manned flights to Mars, towing away an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, and traveling to and from near-Earth asteroids for mining operations or to gather samples for scientific study. One spin-off from the E-sail technology, the “plasma brake,” could be used to deorbit satellites at the end of their lifetime. With an E-sail payload currently waiting to be tested, this technology may be deployed for solar system research within a decade.

The final paper in this issue is by Michael Ramage (University of Cambridge) and was presented at the 2017 US FOE session on megatall buildings. As more of the world’s population moves to urban areas, high-rise and megatall buildings will become a growing part of the built environment. Ramage discusses the use of engineered timber as a substitute for steel and concrete in structures higher than previously thought possible. He notes that the first generation of these buildings demonstrates that it is possible to envision a future where the built environment is synergistic with nature and a high quality of life.

NAE president Dan Mote refers to Frontiers of Engineering as an “evergreen” program. Because the topics and attendees of each meeting are different, the engineering areas that are covered reflect emerging fields and changing societal priorities. Now in its 24th year, the FOE program retains its relevance as a mechanism for bringing people together to facilitate collaboration across engineering fields and national boundaries. And of course, as with most things, the vitality of the program is due to people—the NAE members, many of whom are FOE alumni themselves, who chair the symposium organizing committees, and the early-career engineers who plan and participate in the meetings, then integrate that experience and the connections they’ve made into their research and technical work.

About the Author:Janet Hunziker directs the NAE’s Frontiers of Engineering program.