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Mechanical Engineers to the Rescue

Mechanical Engineers to the Rescue

In the midst of a global energy crisis, it could be the innovations of MEs that save us.
Everyone must feel they’ve seen this movie before: Aggression by a petrostate, spiking global energy prices, and worries about whether we’ll have enough supplies for the next heat wave or cold snap. When the world faced this situation in the past, it turned to its petroleum engineers and geoscientists to find and extract more oil and gas, whether from Alaska’s North Slope or the shales of Texas and Appalachia.
But times have changed, and now it's the mechanical engineers the world needs to improve its energy security. The present situation in Europe is especially fragile. Countries in western and central Europe are among the biggest buyers of Russian oil and gas exports. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, those nations plus Turkey accounted for 49 percent of Russian oil exports and 74 percent of its gas exports. It is no accident that Russia invaded Ukraine in February, when demand for Russian gas to heat European buildings in the depths of winter is usually highest.
The subsequent disruptions to supply have caused prices to skyrocket around the world. While wealthy Europeans might be able to afford energy at these higher prices, poorer consumers in other countries may simply go without energy as the price spikes destroy a lot of demand. What can be done to help energy security for the Europeans who need to replace their purchases of Russian energy and global consumers who cannot afford today’s high prices?

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Three solutions come to mind: increase exports of liquefied natural gas to replace Russian gas, promote electric vehicles to reduce demand for petroleum products, and improve and deploy heat pumps to reduce demand for natural gas. All these are the domain of mechanical engineers. Our innovations can improve global security.
A key element is for other major producers—namely the United States— to ramp up on exports of natural gas. Petroleum engineers and geologists have turned the large resource of shale gas from a notional idea to a breathtakingly large source of energy. Now the bottleneck is to liquefy the gas quickly and affordably so it can be shipped across the oceans. That’s where mechanical engineers can work to develop better, faster, and more efficient liquefaction trains.
Electric vehicles have already gotten support not only for their low carbon footprint, but also for their quiet operation and performance advantages. Many countries have declared their intention to move to EVs in the next decade. By accelerating improvements in EVs, especially in improving battery designs and on-board power management, mechanical engineers could make these vehicles even more attractive and reduce the demand for oil or refined products from Russia, though obviously it would take time.
Finally, heat pumps—basically air conditioners that run backwards—can be important weapons in our energy security arsenal. Heat pumps run on electricity and are more efficient than the gas furnaces or boilers they replace in older buildings. In recent years, much of the attention on heat pumps has been based on their ability to bring down carbon emissions, since in places with a hydropower- or nuclear-dominated electrical grid, they can eliminate CO2 emissions from building heating almost entirely.

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In the present moment, however, the efficiency gain from heat pumps is what is important. And the impact is immediate: Each one that is installed reduces the amount of gas needed to warm a building. The goal for mechanical engineers should be to improve heat pump performance in colder temperatures— the less heat in the air, the harder the pumps must work to extract it—and to reduce their need for power so that retrofits in older European buildings don’t overload the circuits.
Yes, we need to diversify our forms of energy and our sources of energy. Ramping up on geothermal, nuclear, wind, and solar from friendlier countries will reduce the demand from Russia. But deploying new engineering systems to displace those fuels is vital. If today’s energy crisis feels like a reboot, in this version mechanical engineers can be the ones that rush in to save the day.
Michael E. Webber is the Josey Centennial Professor of Energy Resources at the University of Texas in Austin. His series, "Power Trip: The Story of Energy," is available on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, and local PBS stations.

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