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Author: George Bugliarello
Every year the NAE Frontiers of Engineering Symposium brings together young engineers working on cutting-edge technologies in many different fields. Papers delivered at the eighth symposium this year at the Beckman Center of the National Academies in Irvine, California, dealt with four themes: chemical and molecular engineering; technology for human beings; the future of nuclear energy; and engineering challenges for quantum information technology. The six papers published here we believe will be of special interest to our readers - NAE members, members of Congress, and other decision makers in government and industry. All 15 papers (including the papers published here) and a broad historical overview of digital communication delivered by Andrew Viterbi will be published in full early next year by the National Academies Press in a new Frontiers of Engineering volume. In this editorial, I would like to underscore some of the major issues raised in the symposium.
In the area of chemical and molecular engineering, one speaker emphasized the significant differences between nanocluster properties and their corresponding macro properties, which have opened up a range of innovative nanotechnologies. Our understanding of the properties of amorphous polymeric nanoclusters is still limited, however, and this is bound to be an important area of research in the future. Another talk focused on the continuing quest for cleaner, more efficient energy generation. Fuel cells, which can have very high theoretical efficiencies, have been slow to be commercialized, even though the concept is more than a century old. The two approaches most frequently considered are polymer electrolyte membrane (PEMs) fuel cells and sulfur solid-oxide electrolyte fuel cells (SOFCs). SOFCs, which are the more fuel flexible of the two, could use any combustible gas, at least in theory, and thus would not need a new fuel supply infrastructure.
In a paper published in this issue, David Davidson describes how computational fluid mechanics can be used to solve important industrial problems. At this juncture, however, the technology is still mostly in the domain of experts, very few of whom are in industry, so applications are limited. The situation could be remedied by closer interactions between experts in universities and industry.
The papers in the area of human factors dealt with a variety of topics. Kim Vicente (in a paper published here) recommends changes in engineering curricula to focus attention on interfaces between the technical and human sciences and the importance of human factors in the design process. Another speaker emphasized the role of human factors in transportation. Human factors are the most frequent causes of car crashes, which kill more than 40,000 Americans annually. To deal with this problem, we need to overcome current limitations in collecting and analyzing data about driver behavior and the influence of automotive skills, distractions, and driver judgment. Another speaker addressed the importance of human factors in the design of interfaces between software and users. Lack of attention to user needs can lead to frequent calls for customer service, increases in product returns, and general dissatisfaction among customers. A stronger focus on human factors could obviate many of these problems, shorten development times, and lead to more innovative products.
One presentation in the human factors area focused on the development of direct brain-computer interfaces for disabled people, one of the most fundamental challenges in human-machine interaction. In direct brain-computer interfaces, computers and devices are activated by direct action of the brain rather than by muscle movements. Although considerable progress has been made, we still have a long way to go to help victims who have normal brain function but are imprisoned in their bodies by disease.
The enormous potential of nuclear energy has not been realized because of concerns about safety, the management and disposal of nuclear waste, and the proliferation of weapons-grade materials. Peter Hastings (published here) discusses the programs that explore complete nuclear energy systems, including the recycling of spent fuel. The United Kingdom, France, Japan, and Russia already recycle fuel; the United States is the only country that still uses a single-cycle, once-through technology. The expansion of nuclear power generation in this country will require more efficient licensing and regulatory processes and a revitalized supply chain. Marvin Adams addresses the potential of nuclear fission to provide sustainable, reliable energy for centuries to come. Adams also makes a strong case for the recycling of nuclear waste.
The highly publicized debates about nuclear reactors have tended to overshadow many other applications of nuclear reactions, such as the unique solutions for sensors and health care they can provide. As James Blanchard points out, alpha radiation sources could power devices implanted inside the body that could operate unattended for long periods of time with no risk of radiation damage. In the longer term, nuclear energy can also satisfy the propulsion requirements for long-duration space missions. Researchers are working to increase the practicality and efficiency of these technologies.
Quantum information technology is another area of research being vigorously pursued. Several presentations at the symposium focused on the implications of this technology for computational devices. As memory units in conventional computers approach the dimensions of an atom, their function will necessarily be determined by quantum mechanics (the quantum counterpart of the bit - the qubit - can be zero and one simultaneously). Quantum computers will require a new concept of computer architecture and new engineering; some intriguing experimental devices are already being developed. Bruce Kane assures us that quantum computer architecture will ultimately have as big an impact as the transistor and the integrated circuit.
Another speaker discussed quantum computing and cryptography. With current cryptographic methods, no matter how complex, the meaning of messages can almost always be decoded. Quantum computers, which will require unprecedented precision and complexity, will enable us to find and decode the meaning of messages and, at the same time, ensure the security of communications.
We have provided only a sampling of papers addressing these challenges and opportunities. To transform these possibilities into practical realities and to prepare our society for their implications, we will need a broad range of sustained research programs.