Are you an aspiring engineer? Engineering is a rewarding career path, as your work will make a real impact on the world, whether through improving transport infrastructure, building hospitals, protecting cities from extreme weather, helping erect the newest iconic skyscrapers, or designing more efficient engines: there are so many paths to take within engineering, with almost endless specialisations.
The rapid march of technology has allowed the engineers of the 21st century to conceive and build things previous generations could scarcely have imagined. On this list, we look at some of the 21st century’s biggest and most challenging engineering projects, both completed and in progress. We hope you’ll be inspired to learn more about some of these projects and bring your knowledge into the classroom!
Rising 2,722 feet (828m) from what was once empty desert, the Burj Khalifa embodies the massive transformation the UAE has undergone since independence in 1971. Designed to draw international recognition and investment to the city and aid in the Emirate’s economic diversification away from hydrocarbons, the Burj Khalifa is the world’s tallest building, and amongst the most iconic.
Constructing such a tall building in the harsh desert climate of the Arabian Peninsula brought several challenges, which were solved with intelligent engineering. Inspired by Islamic architecture, the tower features a tube design with 27 setbacks, narrowing the cross section of the building as it increases in height. These are arranged in a way that minimise vibration and reduce the effect of strong winds and potentially harmful aerodynamic phenomena. Indeed, as such a tall and slender structure, engineering the Burj to withstand the immense forces of the wind was one of the major design considerations.
The structure of the building, known as a ‘buttressed core’, is unique: the core of the building is a hexagon, reinforced by the three buttresses that form the structures ‘Y’ shape. This makes the building extremely resistant to seismic movements and lateral force. The glass used in the building functions as an anti-glare shield and is designed to resist extreme desert temperatures, averaging 41°C in the height of summer (with the highest recorded temperature in Dubai being a blistering 55°C.
The world’s largest power station, the vast Three Gorges Dam, spanning the Yangtze River, produces 22,500 MW of electricity: 11 times more than Hoover Dam. The dam is over 2km in length, and its reservoir measures over 1,000 square kilometres; the creation of which flooded 13 cities, 140 towns and over a thousand villages, requiring the relocation of around 1.3 million people. The dam was opened in 2003, after 9 years of construction, but did not become fully operational until 2012.
The dam features an enormous ship lift, able to carry ships of up to 3,000 tons 113 metres from top to bottom, which has not yet entered commercial operation. Overall, the construction of the Three Gorges Dam required 463,000 tons of steel and a world-record 16 million cubic metres of concrete.
With a huge appetite for infrastructure and unmatched ambition, China is home to many of the world’s largest engineering projects, including the world’s longest and highest bridges. The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, due to open at the end of the year, is in fact a series of bridges and tunnels stretching across the Pearl River Delta for around 50km, overtaking the current longest sea-bridge in the world, also in China.
The bridge project involved creating four artificial islands, 42km of bridges and a 6.7km underwater tunnel to allow the passage of container ships. Due to its geographical location, the bridge has been designed to withstand typhoons and tsunamis. It will cut the journey time from Hong Kong to Macau from over three hours to 30 minutes by car.
When the Burj Khalifa became the world’s tallest building in 2008, neighbouring oil-giant Saudi Arabia’s tallest skyscraper was the Kingdom Centre in Riyadh, standing at a mere 302m (around the height of the Shard in London). Before long, the Middle East’s wealthiest man, Saudi Prince Al-Walled bin Talal, began planning an even larger structure. When it was discovered that the soil at the proposed location for the skyscraper couldn’t support a 1 mile (1,600m) tall structure, they scaled down their ambitions: to a minimum of 1km.
While the project’s planned final height is a closely guarded secret, if the Jeddah Tower is completed to plan sometime in 2019, even at 1000m, it’ll become the tallest building in history by quite some distance. Because of its height, the building will require 3 ‘sky lobbies’, where transfers between elevators can be made. As with the Burj Khalifa, wind represents one of the most significant design challenges – its smooth, sloped shape takes advantage of a aerodynamic phenomenon called ‘wind vortex shedding’ to keep the building stable.
At time of writing, at least 38 floors had been completed.
The largest machine in the world and the most complex experimental facility ever built, the Large Hadron Collider was finished in 2008 and involved scientists and engineers from over 100 countries. Lying in a 17 mile long tunnel underneath France and Switzerland, this particle collider, the world’s most powerful, was designed to answer fundamental questions in physics.
The machine features around 10,000 superconducting magnets which must be kept to a temperature of −271.25 °C, colder than outer space. These magnets guide two high-energy particle beams at close to the speed of light, at which point the beams are smashed together. In 2012, the Collider discovered the existence of a new particle which is believed to be the theorized ‘Higgs boson’ – an elementary particle in the Standard Model of particle physics, the discovery of which was a major aim of the LHC project.
Funded by the EU, China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States, ITER is a nuclear fusion research and engineering project. The aim of the ITER project is to produce, for the first time, more energy from the process of nuclear fusion than that used to initiate it, paving the way for commercial nuclear fusion technology.
While the project has already cost over $10bn, nuclear fusion represents the holy grail of energy – a virtually limitless, safe, clean energy supply which could transform human society. The construction phase is expected to be complete in 2019, but it will be many more years until full scale fusion experiments begin. The engineering challenges posed by nuclear fusion are enormous, and, if commercial nuclear fusion is indeed possible, it is expected to take decades of research to make it viable.
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