Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Engineer and The Public: How's That Again?

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is probably the largest society of engineering professionals in the world, with over 300,000 members worldwide. Its Code of Ethics has a little-known clause in which IEEE members agree to "improve the understanding of technology, its appropriate application, and potential consequences." My father sometimes used to greet me as I came home from school with the question, "And what did you do to make the world a better place today?" I could equally well ask the question of engineers, "What did you do to improve the public's understanding of technology today?"

People called applications engineers do that all the time, but strictly in the context of helping their firm's customers use its products. But I don't think that's all the drafters of the Code had in mind. By virtue of our specialized knowledge, engineers are under an obligation to the public to spread the truth about technology and to counter fraud and fakery wherever found. This may be one reason you don't find more engineers in politics.

In fairness to politicians, many of them try their hardest to understand technical concepts with important political implications, and to express what they see as their essentials to the public. One such attempt which I think succeeded pretty well was published in the Jan. 30 Austin American-Statesman as an editorial by U. S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-El Paso). The occasion is a plan promoted by the Republican governor of Texas to build 18 more coal-fired power plants in the state. Hold on a minute, says Rep. Reyes, we have better things in store being developed right here at Ft. Bliss, where the Army has some laboratories engaged in something called "Power the Army!" The exclamation point must mean they're serious.

If you've ever been to West Texas, you will know that the ironically-named Ft. Bliss is a good place to test systems that need to work well in dry, hot, desert-like conditions. Today's electronically-intensive military can't just find the nearest wall outlet to plug their equipment into. Traditionally, they have had to lug along heavy, expensive, noisy, inefficient diesel generators and the thousands of gallons of fuel needed to run them. So the Army has perhaps a greater motivation than the rest of us to find ways to make electric power from solar energy, of which there is plenty in dry deserts.

Most solar power research has focused on bringing down the cost of the solar cells themselves, which despite much progress over the years are still about twice as expensive as conventional sources. Judging by their website, the "Power the Army!" project engineers have turned to a neglected aspect of solar-fueled electric energy, what is technically termed "power conditioning."

Like most other commodities, electric power has to meet certain standards to be used. Voltage is an important characteristic for power: if your car battery voltage falls below a certain point, your car won't start. If the voltage delivered to your house changes more than a percent or so suddenly, your lights flicker. It turns out that the raw electric power from solar cells is not in very good shape: it varies from moment to moment with cloud cover, from day to day with solar angle, and depends on temperature and other factors. Until recently, developers of solar panels more or less took what they could get, but evidently the Army initiative is working to develop very sophisticated power-conditioning modules that are small enough to fit on each yard-square panel, and are centrally computer-controlled for optimum efficiency. Together with DC-to-AC inverters of improved design, the Army hopes to deliver solar power at half the cost that prevails today.

That's the way an electrical engineer writing for the public would put it. Now read how Rep. Reyes says essentially the same thing:

"The program uses three components: the extractor, which extracts electrons from solar panels rather than the sun having to push them out of the panels; an inverter, which converts direct current (DC), which solar panels provide, into alternating current (AC), which we actually use, at very high efficiency; and a control system to regulate the process."

How do you like that? I think it's great. The bit about "extracting" electrons instead of making the sun push them out, technically speaking, is close to nonsense. But it gets the overall point across, which is that the system works better by doing something actively which up to now has been accomplished passively. And it was written (or commissioned—Rep. Reyes probably had some help) by a former immigration official with a degree in criminal justice who has taken the trouble to learn enough about an important technical matter to bring it to the public's attention.

Few engineers go into fields where they communicate routinely with the general public. But some of those who do have done quite well. The civil engineer Henry Petroski has written many books that make the practice of engineering at least comprehensible, and sometimes interesting and even dramatic. The independent journalist Keith Snow was once a student of mine in electrical engineering, and although his work no longer relates only to technology, the honesty and attention to detail he learned in school has served him well in his present position. An engineering education can be used for a variety of things besides straight design engineering. Perhaps the world would understand more about what engineers do, if more engineers decided to obey that obscure clause in the code of ethics about helping the public understand technology.

Sources: The editorial by Rep. Reyes appeared on p. A9 of the print edition of the Austin American-Statesman. The "Power the Army!" project has a website at http://gina.nps.navy.mil/Projects/PowerTheArmy/tabid/61/Default.aspx. The IEEE Code of Ethics is available at http://www.ieee.org/portal/pages/about/whatis/code.html.

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree! "Alternative Energy" will remain an obscure and uncertain prospect unless the clear and simple benefits of better design can be explained to the vast majority of would-be users - laypeople.

    I hope Universities start to address the deficit of courses in the humanities and the impact of technology on society in engineering curriculums.

    I hope engineers can take the initiative to push their professional development in areas that contribute to public awareness of how design principles shape our world.