Dr Cris Birzer

MIEAust CPEng

Mechanical Engineer and Senior Lecturer

University of Adelaide

Dr Cris Birzer is a mechanical engineer and Senior Lecturer at the University of Adelaide. His work focuses on sustainable energy within the humanitarian and development sectors.

He is a past President of the South Australian Division of Engineers Australia (2014-2015), an Engineers Australia Congress Representative, a current Board Member of Project Everest Ventures, and a past Director of the International Young Professionals Foundation.

As a member of the Australian Defence Force, Cris worked in East Timor and the Solomon Islands. Cris is also a member of RedR having deployed to Nepal with the World Food Programme to assist with the 2015 Earthquakes emergency response.

How long have you been a member of Engineers Australia?
I have been a member for 20 years.

Why did you pursue a career in engineering?
At school I liked science and maths. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I was lucky to receive advice from Andy Thomas (the astronaut and mechanical engineering graduate from the University of Adelaide) and great support from my parents. Hence, I did mechanical engineering. Towards the end of my degree I started liking the idea of working as a researcher. While doing my PhD in fluid mechanics, combustion, and laser diagnostics, I started developing a greater interest in the application of engineering to help those in resource-constrained communities. Consequently, I shifted my research field and career.

How can Australian communities/people/society benefit from your work now and in the future?
Indirectly, my work benefits society through the hundreds of engineering students I help educate at the University of Adelaide who go out and make a difference. Directly, my team and I research in fields of improved cookstoves, biodigesters, water treatment systems, and renewable energy systems. The focus is generally resource-constrained communities and so the benefits are well beyond Australia.

What is the most challenging or interesting project you’ve ever worked on?
Every project we work on is about developing new knowledge in science and engineering, and turning that into a product or solution that is suitable for end users. This requires working with various people, communities, and organisations to ensure the right products get to market. One product we’ve developed is a small-scaled water treatment system. With molecular biologists and engineers, we developed the knowledge. Then with anthropologists, we started working on making the product suitable for people. It is now at the stage of working with manufacturers and distributors to get the needed product to the end users.

What do you see as one of the biggest issues facing the engineering profession?
The climate crisis is the biggest issue. The climate crisis is already impacting agriculture and aquaculture, coastal environments, water resources, and air quality. We need engineering solutions not only to fix/reverse the problems, but also stop the problems progressing.

What excites you about the future of the profession or what opportunities do you see for the future?
The rate of technology change is amazing. In many ways what will be available, and how we use it is still part of our imagination. I’m excited to see how we use new and old technology to address the challenges that we face.

Who is your engineering hero?
I don’t really have any engineering heroes. Without the intended cliché, I’m really inspired by some of the students that I’ve supervised in the past. Their passion, enthusiasm, and different perspective to problems and solutions helps motivate me with my work.

Image: courtesy of Dr Cris Birzer