In This Issue
Fall Bridge on the Value Proposition in Innovative Engineering
September 22, 2023 Volume 53 Issue 3
This issue explores the unique value proposition that engineers and engineering disciplines present in addressing the National Academies’ Grand Challenges. Covering topics ranging from the global sustainability challenge to the sequestration of carbon to transformations in our water management system, the articles in this issue show how engineers are vital to creating a world in which humanity can thrive.

Issue Editors' Note Engineers Matter - But Why?

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Author: Piotr D. Moncarz and Michael D. Lepech

Our model world is unimaginable without the field of engineering. Yet the profession today often operates in a reactive mode of solving problems, whether large or small, defined by outside decision-makers and stakeholders. Thus, while the impact of engineers may be ubiquitous in today’s world, their participation in defining our collective needs and priorities is not. This is the case even while engineers are responsible for designing and building the foundational infrastructure serving our society, developing computer algorithms and models that amaze us with new capabilities, innovating the next “must-have” products that delight us, helping craft regulations and policies that protect our society and environment, and working to solve many of today’s greatest problems across temporal and spatial scales.

The application of mathematical and scientific discoveries to solving real-world problems is a central tenet of engineering, whose value in today’s world seems obvious. But is it obvious? Are the contributions of engineers and the engineering disciplines really recognized by society? Defining the problems to be solved with and by engineers and communicating them to society will not only elevate the profession in the societal structure but also push society to allocate adequate resources for K-12 STEM education and collegiate engineering programs. Bringing together a group of contributors across the range of engineering disciplines, we look to explore the underlying value of engineering and engineers and the need to communicate it to the ultimate beneficiary of this value creation – our society. After all, beauty (and worth) are in the eye of the beholder.

As a roadmap for this exploration, we have selected a number of the National Academies’ Grand Challenges (NAE 2008) and requested that contributing authors comment on the unique value proposition that engineering disciplines present in addressing these challenges.

How do we engineer a sustainable world?

Michael Lepech (Civil and Environmental Engineering, Stanford University) and James Leckie (Civil and Environmental Engineering, Stanford University) discuss the value of engineering in addressing the multi-faceted and complex sustainability challenges facing our world. Viewed from the perspective of the IPAT equation, it becomes clear that the profession of engineering has an important role in addressing the global sustainability challenge. Engineers develop new technologies (T) that are less impactful on our natural environments and innovative products and services that allow us to consume (A) in more efficient, less polluting ways. When engineers responsibly deploy these engineering solutions to address, not exacerbate, global sustainability challenges, their value to our global society becomes even more distinct.

How do we provide carbon-free energy for all?

Piotr Moncarz (XGS Energy) and Michal Kurtyka (Atlantic Council and former president of COP24) discuss the value of engineers in developing new and innovative ways to provide carbon-free, low-cost, renewable energy around the globe. The authors present a broad picture of currently available energy sources and their future role in the 2030 and 2050 energy mix desired by most of the world. The current renewable energy pallet does not include in significant measure the virtually inexhaustible energy source GeoHeat, which is stored in the earth’s crust. Neither the increase in existing renewable energy sources nor the introduction of newly developed renewable energy technologies can happen without a properly trained engineering cadre.

How do we provide access to clean water for everyone?

Glen Daigger (Department of Civil and Environ-mental Engineering, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) discusses the value that engineers provide globally in engineering clean water to quench the thirst of growing populations. The future challenges associated with a rapidly growing population (primarily in arid, under-developed geographies), climate change, and the scarcity of clean water can only be addressed with the help of engineering solutions based on both existing and yet-to-be-discovered technologies. The underlying principle of “one water” will lead to multiple uses of the water extracted from its resource, thus creating a sustainable system for water recycling. None of this can be done without major improvements to the existing water handling and purifying technologies, which need to be implemented through engineering processes.

How do we restore and improve our national infrastructure for both equity and resilience?

Jeffrey LaMondia (Civil and Environmental Engineering, Auburn University), Fernando Cordero (Arcadis), and Andrzej Nowak (Civil and Environmental Engineering, Auburn University) discuss the value of engineers working with planners and decision-makers, focusing the article to a significant degree on the resilience of rural communities. The discussed approach of performance measures in resilience planning provides a base for a systematic approach to including rural community-specific characteristics in the process. The transportation system is used as an example of specific conditions that need to be addressed to -better serve both urban and rural populations. A similar discussion can be held for communication and utility infrastructure.

How do we manage natural and industrial flows to function cyclically and synergistically?

Benedict Schwegler (SynAppBio) discusses the value that engineering disciplines bring to the integration of natural flows and industrial flows in achieving greater efficiency, lower impact, and improved scalability. By viewing natural systems and natural cycles as the “infrastructure of the planet” and understanding that natural and industrial cycles are intimately connected, engineers take on a valuable role at the intersection of research, invention, and policy. Looking forward, engineers have the potential to design and engineer our integrated natural and industrial systems with the explicit goals of health, well-being, and sustainability.

How do we capture and store excess carbon dioxide to prevent global warming?

Birol Dindoruk (Petroleum Engineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, University of Houston) and Silviu Livescu (Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering, University of Texas at Austin) discuss the value that engineers provide in the quest to sequester carbon. Engineers are providing value in the field of carbon dioxide storage along three important axes: (i) mitigation and sequestration through subsurface storage in saline aquifers and depleted hydrocarbon reservoirs, mineralization, and within bio-domains; (ii) carbon dioxide capture technologies from industrial streams; and (iii) carbon dioxide transport pathways, including pipelines, and tankers for liquefied CO2. More fundamentally, the next generation of engineers can provide value by being educated in the CO2 domain, including elements of carbon footprint calculations for every step of project execution, given that emissions do not respect local, state, or national boundaries.

How do we advance personalized learning?

Craig Barrett (former CEO and chair of Intel Corporation) discusses the failure of our educational K-12 system to elevate the performance of the United States in language arts, math, and science from “near or below the middle of the pack of the OECD countries.” The article points out the need to reconsider the construct of our K-12 educational system to bring together new technologies and high-quality teachers in every classroom to advance the educational journey of young people around the world. The essential point of the article is linking the quality of K-12 education and the future of US engineering education and, ultimately, US world leadership in technology.

How do we engineer industrial cycles to retain value in critical material supply chains?

Evan Granite, Grant Bromhal, Jennifer Wilcox, and Mary Anne Alvin (United States Department of -Energy) discuss the value of engineering circular pathways for abundant waste and byproduct material streams that could potentially serve as sources for materials that are critical to our economy. Engineers provide value through a focus on the “dynamic dozen,” a group of elemental materials that are crucial for future clean energy and transportation systems such as renewable wind and solar power generation, electric vehicles, and hydrogen fuels. These materials can be found in wastes and byproducts from large-scale thermal processes (e.g., coal ash, steel slag), large-scale industrial wastes (e.g., mine tailings, red mud from aluminum production, e-waste), less common waste streams (e.g., garnet abrasives, phosphogypsum waste), and even novel sources such as outer space and the ocean floor. Around the world, these opportunities are being explored by engineers in government and the private sector to enhance security and improve the natural environment.

Reading these articles, consider the value proposition of engineers in addressing each of these Grand Challenges through the triple lens of relevancy, measurement, and differentiation. Specifically, ask how engineers and engineering disciplines are relevant to solving these Grand Challenges for the betterment of society. Are engineers and engineering disciplines an important, and even necessary, part of solving these challenges? How is the role of engineers and engineering disciplines uniquely different from that of other disciplines such as the physical sciences, the social sciences, mathematics, the humanities, medicine, and law in addressing these Grand Challenges? These rhetorical questions serve to illustrate the complex ecosystem in which engineers function to deliver solutions to society’s greatest challenges.

We believe that this collection of diverse perspectives, which centers upon a core thesis of understanding the value of engineers and the engineering disciplines in solving our Grand Challenges, uniquely depicts the deep and broad role that engineers serve in society. We also believe that these perspectives highlight the imperative for engineers to proactively, respectfully, inclusively, and responsibly engage with academics and practitioners from diverse backgrounds and fields. Engagement with physical scientists, mathematicians, humanists, social scientists, medical professionals, lawyers, politicians, managers, leaders, decision-makers, and other individuals from across a broad spectrum of disciplines will be critical to meaningfully providing “a more sustainable, safe, healthy, and joyous — in other words, better — place” for us all (NAE 2008).


The articles in this issue were reviewed for content and relevance by us and by a host of professional colleagues. We appreciate the time, effort, and diligence of each contributor and content reviewer. They were edited by Kyle Gipson, whose efforts enhanced the clarity, accessibility, focus, and concision of all the articles. The authors graciously thank Kyle for his thoughtful insights, great help, and dedicated efforts.


National Academy of Engineering (NAE). 2008 (updated 2017). NAE Grand Challenges for Engineering. Washington, DC: The National Academy of Sciences. Online at &v=34765dff.


About the Author:Piotr Moncarz (NAE) is vice chair and chief technologist, XGS Energy. Michael D. Lepech is professor of civil and environmental engineering, Stanford University, faculty director of the Stanford Center for Sustainable Development and Global Competitiveness, and senior fellow, the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.