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About the NAE Grand Challenges

From stone masons and ship builders to the engineers and inventors who fueled the Industrial Revolution, engineers have always played a huge part in the advancement of civilization. But for all our advancements — electricity, automobiles, radio and television, lasers, antibiotics and medical imaging, and computers and the Internet — there will always be new challenges to overcome and areas of human concern that require technical knowledge, creative thinking, and dedicated researchers. Falling into the four themes of SUSTAINABILITY, HEALTH, SECURITY, and JOY OF LIVING, these are the grand challenges the NAE has identified that need to be addressed and overcome by engineers:

Making Solar Energy Economical

Whatever you believe about fossil fuels, the one thing everyone agrees on is that fossil fuels will not last forever. Solar energy is environmentally clean, basically free of charge, and its availability exceeds any foreseeable energy demands. But less than 1 percent of total global energy consumption is supplied by solar electricity generation. The challenge is to find ways to capture, convert, and store the sun’s energy in ways that are efficient, effective, and economical.

Providing Energy from Fusion

Fusion is how the sun generates energy. Generating fusion on Earth [to produce electricity] is a much more explosive issue. From politics and safety concerns, to reliability and cost issues, the challenge is to scale-up the human-engineered fusion process [one that has already been demonstrated on a small scale] to responsible commercial proportions.

Developing Carbon Sequestration Methods

Eighty-five percent of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels, hydrocarbons that release carbon dioxide when burned. Carbon dioxide levels contribute to global warming and a host of other issues, including rising sea levels, agriculture disruptions, and stronger more frequent storms. Methods already exist for key parts of carbon sequestration [capturing and storing the excess carbon dioxide from industrial processes], but it is clear that multiple strategies and storage locations will be needed to solve the issue and offset the trillions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions projected over the next century.

Managing the Nitrogen Cycle

Nitrogen is vital for the production of food, but controlling the impact of agriculture [better fertilization technologies] on the global cycle of nitrogen is a growing challenge for sustainable development.

Providing Access to Clean Water

One out of every six people in the world do not have adequate access to clean water. It’s not that the world does not possess enough water. The issue is that water supplies around the world are contaminated by toxic contaminants as well as by naturally occurring pollutants in groundwater aquifers. Developing methods of ensuring adequate [and clean] water supplies is necessary for a healthy and sustainable future.

Restoring and Improving Urban Infrastructure

Better design and new advanced materials in urban environments — roads, bridges, sewer systems, power grids, telecommunication systems, and more — can improve transportation, energy, water, and waste systems.

Advancing Health Informatics

The acquisition, management, and use of medical information can greatly enhance the quality and efficiency of individual health care and the response to public health emergencies. However, efforts are also needed to ensure confidentiality and guard against the potential for misuse.

Engineering Better Medicines

Developing new drugs and delivery systems that use genetic information to treat individuals in a more personalized way could not only enhance treatment outcomes but could also reduce medical costs.

Reverse-engineering the Brain

The intersection of engineering and neuroscience provides opportunities to build better and more capable “thinking” machines (artificial intelligence). Today, however, engineers are basing their models on how the brain processes information. These types of simulations can aid not only in addressing new forms of artificial intelligence but also in developing new applications for neurological disorders and medical implants.

Preventing Nuclear Terror

The nuclear age brings with it the threat of nuclear weapons accumulating around the globe, making nuclear security one of the most urgent challenges we face. Engineers are tasked with determining how to secure these materials, how to detect them at a variety of distances, how to render a nuclear device harmless, as well as the best ways to respond to emergencies and the aftermath of explosions.

Securing Cyberspace

Personal privacy and national security are key elements of today’s cyberspace environment. They also they pose some of the most complex challenges engineering has ever faced. Regulations, politics, cultural and social influences … they all come into play. Engineers must address a cybersecurity system that protects the individual as well as the system, while also directing that traffic on the Internet.

Enhancing Virtual Reality

Whether used for training, treatment, or communication, virtual reality can be a powerful tool for many specialized fields from psychiatry to education. Engineers are at the forefront of this field, working through the finer points of virtual environments and even merging virtual worlds with the real one.

Advancing Personalized Learning

Learning is as personal as each individual. A one-size-fits-all educational system does not work. Engineers are perfectly positioned to take the most current research in neuroscience and work through complex problems and computing systems to help develop advanced software and solutions for knowledge acquisition.

Engineering the Tools of Scientific Discovery

Engineers always have been and always will be active partners in the advancement of scientific knowledge. They create, design, and build. They work with scientists, biologists, ecologists, and physicians to develop better tools and services for society. Today, more than ever, the frontiers of nature represent some of the grandest challenges. And engineers will play a key part of expanding technology to find solutions to the ever-growing and changing needs of civilization.

To find out more about the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges for Engineering, visit the NAE Grand Challenges page.