In This Issue
Winter Bridge on Frontiers of Engineering
December 15, 2022 Volume 52 Issue 4
From novel applications of microbes to DEI in engineering to the potential for hydrogen energy, Frontiers of Engineering participants tackle today’s challenging world issues. The winter issue of The Bridge showcases research by early-career engineers as shared at the 2022 US FOE symposium.

Editor's Note: Frontiers for Engineers and for the Country

Friday, December 16, 2022

Author: Ronald M. Latanision

I knew little of the NAE’s Frontiers of Engineering program before I became editor in chief of The Bridge in 2012. But over the years since, I have been more and more impressed by its approach to engaging young, rising engineering leaders.

Established in 1995, the goal of the Frontiers of Engineering (FOE) program is to bring together outstanding early-career engineers from all engineering disciplines and from industry, universities, and federal labs to facilitate cross-disciplinary exchange and promote the transfer of new techniques and approaches across fields in order to sustain and build US innovative capacity. Additionally, this approach establishes lifelong contacts among a network of the next generation of engineering leaders. The meetings focus on pioneering technical work and leading-edge research in selected, varied engineering fields and industry sectors.

FOE is integral to the culture and impact of the Academy. As always, young people are the future and the select FOE participants represent that future for the NAE, the nation, and the planet! FOE expands, enlightens, and challenges these young folks.

Each year when I look at the FOE program, I wish that I could have been present. This year is no exception. The 2022 Grainger Foundation Frontiers of Engineering Symposium was hosted by Amazon and featured sessions on advances in infectious disease diagnostics and treatment, conversational AI, technology and racial justice and equity, and the hydrogen economy.

These topics represent an important part of our societal and engineering future. For one, the global Covid-19 pandemic has not only imposed immediate changes on daily life, work, education, and commerce but also ushered in new thinking about the ways—and places—we work, study, and live. As indicated in the fall issue of The Bridge, on Microbiomes of the Built Environment, buildings of all kinds—offices, homes, schools, hotels, hospitals, and more—are used by a public that is concerned about its health and the capacity of buildings to reduce risks and assess health conditions.

Likewise, there is a growing sense in the AI community that AI can simulate human consciousness. I wonder if it is more likely that AI can mine data that it curates and then construct what appears to be human thought by assembling a mirror of the data it curates. With a population that is now so seemingly easily misled and misinformed, this seems a crucial point in our technological history.

It is true that the technical advances behind AI are exciting and can be implemented meaningfully and usefully. But there are important social and ethical issues associated with various applications of AI, concerning, for example, privacy, monitoring, manipulation, and differential impacts related to characteristics such as race/skin color and gender. I believe that this is an extremely important topic to be addressed and that corporate America could set the standard for AI technological transparency, accountability, and responsibility in a way that engages social scientists. Both the European Union and the White House have recently introduced legislation that would provide some guidance for AI safeguards. A future Bridge issue will explore this important topic.

In the case of hydrogen, it is demonstrably clear that the sea level is rising, glaciers are melting, and global temperatures are warming. Whether these are consequences of natural climate oscillation or climate change that is accelerated by anthropogenic activity is the subject of some scientific debate and even more political discourse. In any case, engineered solutions are necessary to manage all of this going forward.

But it seems to me that there is a collective solution that has received almost no attention: desalination on a global scale and the transition to a hydrogen economy. The former is practiced widely in the Middle East and could be scaled up globally to produce freshwater for human consumption and irrigation for drought-ridden farms. Likewise, some of that water could be split using sunlight to produce molecular hydrogen and oxygen. The former would serve as a global energy source. This can be done. What is required is the public and political will to do it.

We live in a technology-intense world and engineers and technologists must become a major part of the conversation in all three branches of government. And these experts must be of all races, ethnicities, and genders! Exclusion is not an option.

It is time for change on many levels. Engineers and technologists must run for public office and/or make themselves available for appointment to positions in government bodies. I personally hope that someday soon a president of the United States will stand before a microphone and say something like “I am going to commit this nation to a hydrogen economy going forward. In order to do that we will need a photoelectrode that is durable, efficient, and cheap in order to use sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Sunlight and water are both free and know no national or geopolitical boundaries. This is a means of energy independence for legacy and nonlegacy nations all over this small planet. I therefore call on the materials science community to develop such a photoelectrode.” Then a representative from the Materials Genome Initiative will come to a microphone and say, “Madam President, MGI is up to this challenge and we will develop and deploy that photo-electrode.” (I have four granddaughters!)

The Materials Genome Initiative provides the basis for such a conversation. It is reshaping materials education and practice in service to societal and national needs. A product of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) during the Obama administration, this program is demonstrably able to design materials with required properties from first principles in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost of the traditional empirical materials development of the past. This is a consequence of the unprecedented convergence of computational and experimental tools and the will of the materials science and engineering community to embrace this approach. What was required then, as now, was both the public and political will to respond.

Once again, FOE has hit a home run, in my view!

I am also very pleased to include in these pages a contribution from the MIT Microelectronics Group on a subject that is of enormous consequence to the US economy and national security: reestablishment of leadership in semiconductors and microelectronics. From fundamental science to workforce development to deployment, Jesús del Alamo and his colleagues identify opportunities to regain this country’s standing and leadership. There is much to do but this article should serve as a guide for action in response to the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022.

Finally, I note that in this issue we take a temporary hiatus from the interview feature and the Invisible Bridges column. Both will return in the spring.

As always, I welcome your comments (

About the Author:Ronald M. Latanision (NAE) is a senior fellow at Exponent.