Improving People’s Lives: The Grand Challenges for Engineering
- Nathan Meehan (2016 SPE President)
- Document ID
- Society of Petroleum Engineers
- Journal of Petroleum Technology
- Publication Date
- January 2016
- Document Type
- Journal Paper
- 10 - 11
- 2016. Copyright is retained by the author. This document is distributed by SPE with the permission of the author. Contact the author for permission to use material from this document.
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The first brief flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903 did not immediately make the Wright brothers famous; however, within 5 years, enthusiasm for the new technology began to spread around the world. Louis Blériot won a prize for flying over the English Channel in a heavier-than-air craft in 1909, and Charles Lindbergh won the USD 25,000 Orteig prize for the first nonstop flight between New York and Paris in 1927. Multiple teams competed and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars pursuing the prize. Technical advances developed by the competitors led to multiple advances in aviation, revolutionizing the way the world works.
Incentivizing Technological Innovation
The concept of an inducement prize (as opposed to a recognition prize such as Nobel Prizes) is well established for the solution of a problem that is important to society. The British, Spanish, and Dutch governments all offered monetary prizes as early as 1567 for breakthroughs in determining the longitude of a ship at sea. Many scientists and engineers worked on this problem, resulting in substantial advances in timekeeping, telescopes, and other technologies. The French government offered a large prize during the Napoleonic wars for a way to safely and cheaply preserve large amounts of food, leading to pasteurization advances.
The Ansari XPRIZE challenged teams to build a spaceship capable of carrying three people to 100 km above the Earth’s surface twice within two weeks. The USD 10-million prize was awarded in 2004 and has sparked other XPRIZES designed to encourage advances in oil spill cleanup, adult literacy, medicine, and various technologies. The concept is to specify an audacious goal that will benefit mankind if a significant breakthrough is made.
SPE R&D Committee Identifies Grand Challenges
The National Academy of Engineering incorporated input from leading technological minds to identify 14 “grand challenges” for engineering for the 21st century. Several of these dealt with energy, including making solar energy more commercial, providing energy from fusion, and carbon sequestration. The SPE Research and Development (R&D) Committee identified five grand challenges for the petroleum industry including:
- High-resolution subsurface imaging
- Challenges in reusing produced water
- In-situ molecular manipulation
- Increasing hydrocarbon recovery factors
- Carbon capture and sequestration
- An additional focus on the environment, including minimizing the footprint of oil and gas activities, and oil spill prevention and response were added, so these are often referred to as the “5+1” challenges.
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