The AEMS Lab is an interdisciplinary research group with a diverse range of projects and a shared vision. Sustainability is a self-evident truth, a right of both humans and nature. Like Safety, Security, Liberty or Justice, Sustainability must be safeguarded through institutional processes. Sustainability for first world societies cannot be achieved simply by consumer choices or growth in use of renewable energy. There is a great amount of work to be done to re-organize fossil-fuelled systems. There is always a gap between fossil fuel expectations and sustainable energy feasibility. These gaps will be filled by change and transition.
Sustainability is a shared cultural vision. Like other higher level ideals, we will never reach some equilibrium state where we have achieved sustainability. Rather, the fundamental requirements of sustainability will be reflected in governance, infrastructure and behaviour, and will be continuously monitored, protected and remedied.
Safety - Security - Sustainability
Liberty and Justice require a continuous resolution of conflicting interests of individuals, groups and the state. Safety requires a continuous learning and remedy process for new technologies and built environments to reduce harm to people. Security requires continuous policing, negotiation, and management of behaviours to avoid conflict between individuals and groups. Sustainability will require continuous monitoring and adaptation of human technology, activities, behaviour, and economics in order to balance the wellbeing of humans and ecosystems.
Engineering across all disciplines will play a major role in the changes required by sustainability ideals. The immediate role of engineering will be executing the rapid change in the existing infrastructure and technology which are causing the most irreversible harm and pose the greatest risk to continuity. This "sustainability engineering" is only just emerging. Intensive research in engineering science is urgently needed to develop the methods, models and practices for delivering advanced energy and material systems.
The Great Challenge for Change
The defining moral issue of this time in history is how people will adjust their own expectations and demands in order to address global climate change, overpopulation, and peak oil. The greatest test of the character and adaptability of humanity will occur in the near future as societies re-discover and re-enforce the oldest and most fundamental rule of sustainable civilization; constraints exist.
The “Boom and Bust” model of development has been followed by people throughout history. It is a natural way for humans to behave – if you have somewhere else to migrate to after you exhaust the local resources. There are numerous examples of civilisations that have followed a different pattern, what I call Continuity.
Continuous communities invest in local infrastructure, and they have socially and economically integrated ways to monitor and manage the individual use of common resources. Our society is nearing the peak of a massive boom in energy and materials consumption. It’s not possible to maintain this level of consumption, so the next 50 years or so will be the bust side of the cycle.
The challenge: Make constructive use of science and engineering capabilities to produce a transition to a continuous society.
Of course it is possible that the global economy could collapse, and with it the energy service systems and human wellbeing. But collapse is not an interesting engineering problem. Curious and capable researchers have always been stimulated by hard problems. Continuity of wellbeing and civility in the circumstances of declining resources and environmental degradation are very hard problems.
The AEMS Lab directive is to conceive of and develop novel technologies that facilitate the transitional decline of energy and resource consumption, rapid reduction of fossil carbon dioxide emission, and continuous regeneration of depleted ecological systems.
Advanced Energy and Material Systems use renewable resources within the limits of natural ecological constraints to provide well-being for human communities. Advanced systems are safe for people today and in the future. Advanced systems provide for profitable activity and individual specialisation. Advanced systems are designed to adapt to resource supplies, and not to grow beyond them. Socially and economically, advanced energy and material systems are engineered and operated for continuity.
If you type energy, engineering, and sustainability into Google, you will see a lot of activity around biofuels, solar power, wind energy, nuclear energy, clean coal, and hydrogen. You may also see triple-bottom-line accounting and sustainable development.
AEMS Lab projects may involve any or all energy conversion technologies and economic concepts. However, AEMS Lab research is dedicated to the development of energy and resource constrained systems. This is a much different and more strategic approach than simply calling a particular technology clean or green, and then trying to make it economical compared to conventional alternatives.
Sustainability is a result of system-level behaviour, not any particular technology, material or energy source. Thus, while we are engineers and work on technology, our research is aimed at bringing the social and environmental context into the energy and material system design. Because continuity and wellbeing are primary considerations, our projects are often fundamentally different from others in the “Sustainable Energy” area. Logic (and a few simple engineering calculations) dictates that the fossil fuelled energy system cannot be sustained by substitution of any other primary energy resource. We have accepted this fact, and have moved on to engineering for the reality of the transition to a constrained and declining fossil energy system.