Engineering innovations for sustainability

drone bee hero image

Brunel takes its name from legendary English engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a pioneer in bridge construction in the 19th century and a figure who embodies the spirit of engineering innovation. In honour of World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development on March 4, we’ve put together some examples of sustainable engineering innovations within each of the industries we’re involved in, including Conventional Energy, Mining, Renewables, Information Technology and Life Sciences.

One of Brunel’s core values is entrepreneurship, which we believe is key to innovation and success. Breakthrough technologies have a transformative effect on industries - and in this blog, we explore just a few of these breakthroughs which have redefined what’s possible in their industries and driven transformative change. The theme of this year’s engineering day is sustainability – celebrating the ways in which engineers develop sustainable processes and inventions.

“Engineering has always had an essential role in development and human welfare. Ensuring that future generations of engineers and scientists will be able to design solutions for local and global challenges is critical.” – UNESCO

CRISPR-cas9 technology

CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing

Gene editing is a revolutionary technique in genetics, enabling scientists to precisely modify DNA to prevent and treat disease, enhance the nutritional value of food, fortify crops and more. CRISPR-Cas9 is the most prominent genetic engineering technology, working by introducing specially designed enzymes into DNA to modify its structure and is made up of two components – the guide molecule (CRISPR) and the enzyme (Cas9). The Cas9 enzyme acts as ‘molecular scissors’ which ‘cut’ DNA at specific locations, triggering it to regenerate. This is useful because scientists can tell the DNA how to regenerate, thereby fixing damage or genetic flaws or reconfiguring it in whichever way they choose.

According to Dr. Jennifer Doudna, co-inventor of CRISPR-Cas9, “In agriculture and beyond, CRISPR has numerous uses as a strategy to grow more nutritious and robust crops, establish “gene drives” to control the spread of infectious diseases such as Zika, and develop cleaner energy sources such as algae-based biofuels.”United Nations, 2019

In South America and the Caribbean, the New World screwworm is a pervasive pest which decimates cattle and drains millions of dollars per annum for livestock industries. Female screwworm flies attack cattle and lay eggs which hatch and produce larvae. These larvae ‘screw’ into the host animal and feed on its flesh. If left untreated, the animal will unfortunately perish. However, scientists in Uruguay using CRISPR have developed a ‘gene drive’ – a method to provoke sterility female screwworm flies.

Alejo Menchaca, veterinarian from the National Institute of Agricultural Research (INIA) in Uruguay, stated that “With gene drives, we can control these pests in precise and effective ways.”– MIT Technology Review, 2024

Uruguay’s battle with screwworms is just one story of how CRISPR technology can be used for the benefit of humanity and to create more sustainable processes.

carbon capture CSS

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)

Carbon Capture and Storage (CSS) is a technology that helps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere. There are certain industrial processes where it is currently impossible to avoid emitting carbon dioxide, such as in steel manufacturing and cement production. CSS can help by extracting emissions directly from the atmosphere and storing it deep underground, where it can be safely monitored and prevented from leaking into the atmosphere.

The Australian Government has expressed its commitment to greenhouse gas reduction and is interested in developing CSS technology in Australia. In 2023, Minister for Resources and Minister for Northern Australia Madeleine King announced new areas in Australia for offshore greenhouse gas storage.

“The 2023 Offshore Greenhouse Gas Storage Acreage Release includes 10 areas across seven basins to explore for carbon capture and storage (CCS) sites in Commonwealth waters off Western Australia, Victoria and Tasmania which already host a variety of offshore exploration and production activities.”

robot bees technology

Robot bees

It may sound like science fiction, but robot bees are in fact a reality. They are basically small drones, imbued with the powers of miniature robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning. Two EU-funded projects are looking at how artificial versions of living organisms can support natural ecosystems, ensuring their health and their productive capacity for humans.

Scientists in this project are planning to use robot bees as one of these artificial organisms to produce healthier broods and healthier, more active bee colonies. The robot bees will stimulate egg laying in the queen bee by feeding her the right foods at the right times.

Dr Farshad Arvin, a University of Durham roboticist and computer scientist, explains that “We plan to affect a whole ecosystem by interacting with only one single animal, the queen. If we can keep activities like egg laying happening at the right time, we are expecting to have healthier broods and more active and healthy colonies. This will then improve pollination.” - European Commission, 2023

tesla gigafactories

Tesla Gigafactories

“Our mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy. In pursuit of this goal, we build products that are designed to replace some of the planet’s biggest polluters – while trying to do the right thing along the way.” – Tesla, Inc.

Tesla is dedicated to producing electric vehicles en masse to foster a more renewable transportation economy. To achieve this mission, Tesla has developed and are continuing to develop what they term ‘gigafactories’ – essentially giant factories with cutting edge technology and industrial processes. But not all Tesla gigafactories have the same purpose. Some factories – like the one in California – manufacture the Model S and Model X, whereas the Berlin gigafactory mainly produces battery cells.

“In order to transition the world to sustainable energy, we really needed to build this big, build this boldly and really build as many battery cells as we possibly could to really accelerate this transition,” Chris Lister, Tesla’s vice president for operations, told CNBC.

Gigafactories have some impressive and unique features. For instance, they are built to withstand earthquakes, and in Tesla Nevada, raw ore is brought directly to the factory via railway from mines and is used to make lithium-ion batteries. They’re also entirely run on renewable energy (mostly solar) and have dedicated recycling machines for their lithium-ion batteries.

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