Top 10 Great Engineering Feats

on November 1, 2020
  • The Channel Tunnel and the TauTona Mine perfectly illustrate the challenges of tunnelling under the sea and down towards the center of the earth.
  • From the Panama Canal to the Three Gorges Dam engineers have fought a constant battle to control the elements.
  • Creating the man-made Palm Islands is an ongoing challenge and while running behind schedule the achievements so far should not be underestimated.
  • The Large Hadron Collider could potentially unlock the key to how time began or create the biggest black hole in history.
  • The London Underground continues to grow although technology has developed since the first gas-lit wooden carriages pulled by steam locomotives.

The world of engineering has created some amazing feats over the years some of which are fairly recent while others go back hundreds of years. We thought it would therefore be interesting to take a look at the Top 10 Great Engineering Feats – although it has to be said there are many more other amazing engineering feats that could easily have made it onto the list.

Burj Khalifa Skyscraper

While originally named the Burj Dubai (Dubai Tower) the skyscraper was later renamed the Burj Khalifa in honour of the president of the United Arab Emirates. Construction of the Burj Khalifa skyscraper began back in 2004 and was completed in 2009 resulting in a skyscraper with a total height of 829.8 m (2722 feet) making it the tallest skyscraper in the world. Even excluding the antenna, the height of the tower is still a staggering 828 m (2717 feet).

While much of the focus is on the height of the Burj Khalifa skyscraper, it is worth noting that there are 163 floors above ground level, one floor below ground level and 58 elevators which travel at around 10 m/s. The skyscraper also houses 900 apartments, 304 rooms and has parking spaces for 2957 vehicles. The plumbing system within the Burj Khalifa consists of 100 km (62 miles) of pipes to supply nearly one million litres of water per day, 213 km (132 miles) of piping for the fire emergency system and an additional 34 km (21 miles) of piping for the air-conditioning chilled water system.

There are approaching 24,400 windows totalling 120,000 m² (1,290,000 ft.²) and it takes 36 workers between three and four months to clean the entire exterior of the building. All in all, the Burj Khalifa is not only an engineering masterpiece but it was also built with the local culture in mind and is the centrepiece of a growing neighbourhood

Burj Khalifa engineering feat

Panama Canal

The initial idea for the Panama Canal goes back to 1513 although it was not until the 19th century that technology caught up with the concept. Originally the French government began work on the Panama Canal in the late 19th century but this failed and the US government took on the project only after considering alternatives such as a canal in Nicaragua connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. Construction of the Panama Canal was part of a wider political change in the region which led to Panamanian independence from Columbia. While the US government negotiated sovereignty over the canal, for a payment of $10 million and an annuity of $250,000 to be paid 9 years after the opening day, ownership was eventually passed over to the Panama government in 1999.

The United States took over the project in 1904 and the canal was opened on 15 August 1914 resulting in one of the most valuable trading routes in the world. The original locks were 34 m wide although these were later extended by another 33% with the construction of this phase completed in May 2016. In total, the Panama Canal is a 77 km (48 mile) waterway consisting of three lanes of locks that connect the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. The locks at each end of the canal lift ship into Gatun Lake which is a man-made lake situated 26 m (85 foot) above sea level and built to reduce the amount of excavation required.

We know that the US government spent more than $350 million on the original Panama Canal. While there have been improvements and extensions since then, the original project required 3,400,000 m³ of concrete to build the locks and a staggering 240,000,000 yd.³ of rock and dirt were excavated. Unfortunately, of the 56,000 workers who assisted with the project between 1904 and 1913 around 10% died during the process. Even though there is competition from other canals such as the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal is priceless when it comes to world trade.

The Millau Viaduct

The Millau Viaduct is one of the greatest engineering feats of the modern era spanning the Gorge Valley and the river Tarn near Millau in the South of France. This was a Franco-British project involving English architect Sir Norman Foster and French structural engineer Dr Michel Virlogeux. Construction began in 2001 and the bridge was formally inaugurated on 14th December 2004, and open to traffic from 16th December, having cost €394 million. The bridge has a total length of 2460 m (8070 feet), a width of 32.05 m (105 feet) and at the highest point it is 343 m (1125 feet) above the base of the bridge.

The €394m cost of the bridge was covered by the builders Eiffage in exchange for the concession to collect bridge tolls until 2080. However, there is an inbuilt agreement that higher-than-expected yields from the bridge tolls could see the construction passed to French government control as early as 2044. Expected to last a minimum of 120 years the construction required 127,000 m³ of concrete, 19,000 tonnes of steel to reinforce the concrete and 5000 tonnes of pre-stressed steel for the cables. At the time of construction, the Millau Viaduct broke a number of records including the highest pylons in the world, the highest bridge in the world and the highest road bridge deck in Europe. While more recent bridges have extended above and beyond these records, the Millau Viaduct is still regarded as an engineering masterclass in design, construction and budget control.

Palm Islands

The Palm Islands project consists of three man-made islands called Palm Jumeirah, Deira Island and Palm Jebel Ali. While the project began in 2001 so far only Palm Jumeirah has been completed with Palm Jebel Ali (partially completed) and Deira Island significantly delayed. While these numbers will grow in the future, at this moment in time a staggering 3,000,000,000 ft.³ of sand has been “repatriated” from the seabed to create Palm Jumeirah. As part of the build, 7 million tonnes of mountain rock were used to create a wave break offering protection from the sea waves and stormy weather. When complete the three islands combined will increase the shoreline of Dubai by a mind-blowing 520 km (320 miles).

The smallest of the islands, Palm Jumeirah at 5.72 km², is connected to the mainland by a 6 lane undersea tunnel and it also hosts the Middle East’s first monorail. The 17 fronds are linked to the main trunk of the island with properties on each frond packed far closer together than early-bird buyers were led to believe. It would appear that developer Nakheel is feeling the impact of extended financing for the overall project. Strictly speaking, Palm Jumeirah is not an island because it is physically connected to the mainland but in reality, all 3 islands (when eventually completed) will be separate entities.

The massive dredging of sand from the seabed has changed the local ecosystem, sea corrosion patterns and there are even refuted reports suggesting the first island is already sinking by 5 mm a year. Initially, the tidal breaks created massive pools of stagnant water although this has been partially addressed by the introduction of new gaps in the barrier. This allows the natural tidal flow to oxygenate the water thereby preventing the accumulation of algae and mosquitoes while encouraging marine wildlife to return. It is believed that Palm Jumeirah cost $12 billion to build and we can only guess the cost of Palm Jebel Ali (50% larger than Palm Jumeirah) and Deira Island (eight times larger than Palm Jumeirah).

Channel Tunnel

While the Channel Tunnel may have been controversial and expensive at the time, it has proved invaluable for travel between the UK and mainland Europe. The original idea for a Channel Tunnel goes back to 1802 when a French engineer suggested a tunnel under the English Channel with an artificial island halfway across for changing horses. Over the years proposals and research was carried out until finally in 1985 a company was formed to do the work. The tunnel is 31.4 miles long with a world-record 23.5 miles situated under the seabed. The initial budget increased by 80% to £4.65 billion which is equivalent to £12 billion today.

A staggering 13,000 people were involved in the project at its height although unfortunately, 10 workers died during the tunnelling process. Tunnelling which began at either side of the channel met with a breakthrough ceremony on 1 December 1990 although the Channel Tunnel did not open for business until 1994. There are actually three tunnels, two tunnels for trains and a service tunnel in case of emergencies. The average depth of the Channel Tunnel stands at 50 m although at its lowest point it touches a depth of 75 m. The enormous boring machines were precision made for the project with 11 used in total weighing a combined 12,000 tonnes. The last machine used from the British side of the Channel Tunnel remains buried.

The lining of the tunnel has an expected life of 120 years and while it was a Franco-British venture it is believed that around 85% of car passengers are British. It takes just over 30 minutes to travel the full length of the Channel Tunnel with shuttle trains measuring 775 m in length which is about the same as eight football pitches. In 2016 the tunnel was used by 21 million passengers across all services. The shuttle service alone transports around 2.6 million cars/coaches and 1.6 million trucks each year (a record for piggyback transport services) with around €115 billion of goods passing through on an annual basis.

Image courtesy of CERN

TauTona Mine

The TauTona Mine, Carletonville, South Africa is one of the deepest mines in the world with a depth approaching 3.9 km (2.4 miles). As mining is a continuous process the actual mantle for the deepest mine in the world tends to change on a regular basis. However, since the main shaft was dropped back in 1957 and the mine opened in 1962 TauTona Mine has been very prominent on the list of the world’s deepest mines. If you have ever wondered what it would be like to travel to the centre of the earth, TauTona Mine will probably be as near as you will ever come.

TauTona is the most efficient gold mine in South Africa with 800 km (500 miles) of tunnelling and a workforce of more than 5600. Despite ever more stringent safety regulations, on average five miners die each year in the quest for gold. When you bear in mind that temperatures reach a mind-boggling 55°C (131°F) for the workforce with rock face temperatures that regularly touch 60°C (140°F) it is easy to appreciate how dangerous this environment is. The mine has an air conditioning system that reduces the temperature to a more “manageable” 28°C (82°F) which in itself is an engineering marvel, being able to work under such conditions.

The journey from the surface to the deepest areas of the mine can take up to one hour with a lift cage and horizontal trolleys providing the transport. When you consider the depth of this mine it does have to go down as one of the greatest engineering feats of all time. There has been speculation the life of the mine is coming to an end but with a depth of 3.9 km (2.4 miles) and temperatures well in excess of 100°F it is unlikely any other mine will beat the record.

London Underground

While London Charles Pearson is recognised as the father of underground railways it was John Fowler who was given the task of designing the original underground railway in London. A site was set up in Kibblesworth back in 1855 with a test tunnel used for two years to ensure the design was safe and the system was workable. The test was a complete success and led to the creation of the underground system we see today which has grown and developed over the years. The first commercial underground railway opened on 9 January 1863 between Paddington and Farringdon using gas-lit wooden carriages pulled by steam locomotives.

The original Circle Line took 21 years to complete, from 1863 to 1884, and the Underground system is still growing today with the Crossrail development the latest addition. The original railway was financed and owned by the Metropolitan Railway Company with additional services financed and built by other private companies. In 1933 all London Underground routes were merged under the control of the London passenger transport board and this was nationalised back in 1948 with the responsibility passing to Transport for London in 2003.

The Tube network covers around 250 miles although less than 50% is actually underground with Bank the deepest central London station at 41.4 m below street level and Hampstead the deepest of all stations at 58.5 m below street level. To give you an idea, the 11 lines and 270 stations which make up the London Tube served a staggering 1.379 billion passengers in the financial year 2016/17. Aside from the actual digging of the tunnels there have been many other engineering challenges such as the ventilation system which has been upgraded to avoid a repeat of the 47°C (117°F) temperatures reported in 2016.

It is difficult to say with any real confidence what the cost of building the London Underground today would be but estimates vary between £60 billion and £80 billion. When you bear in mind it can cost between £60 million and £100 million per km for overground lines and between £250 million and £300 million per km of underground line, you get an idea of the enormity of the project. What we do know is that the cost of building the London Underground has been repaid many times over with the increased productivity of the capital.

Large Hadron Collider

It is difficult to escape the existence of the Large Hadron Collider but what is it, where is it and what does it actually do? Situated across the France Switzerland border near Geneva, the Large Hadron Collider is a circular tunnel up to 175 m underground with a circumference of 27 km (17 miles). It was built by the European Organisation for Nuclear Research between 1998 and 2008 in collaboration with more than 10,000 scientists and input from more than 100 countries. In layman’s terms, the Large Hadron Collider is an engineering feat the likes of which we have never seen before which allows physicists to test an array of theories of particle physics. The famous Higgs Boson particle grabs the headlines but this world record-breaking system will also help with the search for new families of particles that have emerged under supersymmetric theories.

The Large Hadron Collider was first switched on in March 2010 up to 2013 creating energy of 3.5 to 4 teraelectronvolts per beam. At more than four times the previous world record for a collider the record was broken yet again in 2015 when the Large Hadron Collider reached a staggering 6.5 teraelectronvolts per beam. The Collider houses one of the most powerful computer systems ever seen, accelerating protons and ions to near the speed of light via superconducting magnets which continually boost the speed of the circulating particles. The particle beams travel in opposite directions in pipes kept in an ultrahigh vacuum state with the superconducting electromagnets chilled to -271.3°C which is colder than outer space. The 9593 superconducting electromagnets are cooled using liquid helium which also ensures that other elements of the Large Hadron Collider are kept chilled.

Once the optimum particle speed has been achieved the path of the particles is changed so they collide, allowing scientists to delve into the unknown. The Collider will be used to investigate the origins of mass, supersymmetry, dark matter, dark energy and antimatter to name but a few. At full speed the Large Hadron Collider can orchestrate 1 billion particle collisions per second!

Three Gorges Dam

Situated in the Sandouping, Yiling, Hubei province of China and spanning the Yangtze River, when built, the hydroelectric Three Gorges Dam was the largest power station in the world with a capacity of 22,500 MW. Even though the original idea goes back to 1919 construction did not begin until December 1994 with the body of the dam completed in 2006. The dam became fully functional in 2012, more than three years later than expected, with a ship lift added in December 2015. The dam itself is 7661 feet long, 600 feet high and required 510,000 tonnes of steel to build – to put this in perspective, this is enough steel to build 60 Eiffel Towers. Many people are not aware but the Three Gorges Dam also allows freight shipping to travel into mainland China.

Experts estimate the power generated by the 34 enormous generators is equivalent to burning 50 million tonnes of coal or 25 million tonnes of crude oil. The fact that the Three Gorges Dam uses the power of the Yangtze River means it is the most environmentally efficient power station. When the dam was built a staggering 1.24 million people had to be relocated by the Chinese government and 100 towns and villages were lost when the reservoir was filled. The man-made reservoir covers a staggering 405 mi.² and while there is no doubting the green credentials of this enormous powerhouse, some plant species have been endangered as a consequence of the development.

This highly efficient hydroelectric gravity dam cost an estimated $30 billion and the Chinese authorities forecast it will take only 10 years to recover the costs. Even though the dam face is built to withstand a large earthquake it is thought that up to 360 million people living within the river watershed would be in danger if it was to collapse.

MOSE – Venice Tide Barrier Project

Venice has been compared to Atlantis on numerous occasions because of the fact it is sinking and sea levels are rising. Local sea levels are currently rising at 3 mm a year but since the emergence of Venice more than 16 centuries ago sea levels have risen 6 feet and the city has sunk into the soft soil by around 9 inches. These figures perfectly illustrate why the so-called MOSE – Venice Tide Barrier Project has become so vital to Venice and the surrounding region. MOSE is an acronym for Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico, Experimental Electromechanical Module as well as being the Italian for Moses, the man who parted the Red Sea. The idea of a tidal barrier to protect Venice was first discussed back in 1966 with work finally commencing using a successful prototype gate in April 2003.

The project revolves around the installation of 78 mobile gates at three inlets situated at Lido, Malamocco and Chioggia. Temporarily suspending tides that pass through these three inlets will separate the Venetian Lagoon on which Venice stands from the power of the Adriatic Sea. The mobile gates, which are a metal box structure, are 66 feet wide, varying lengths of between 61 feet and 95 feet and 12 feet to 16 feet thick. The gates consist of a male and female element, weighing around 25 tonnes in total, which interlock via the use of enormous hinges (two per gate) which are located on the 125 feet long steel and concrete pilings driven deep into the lagoon bed.

The principle behind the floodgates, which automatically activate on a tide of more than 43 inches (110 cm), is very simple but extremely effective. When the floodgates are not in use they are submerged below the seabed, which has also been reinforced, but when required compressed air is pumped into the hollow bottom of the structure which lifts the floodgates. It takes 30 minutes to raise the floodgates and just 15 minutes to lower them when the danger has passed but they will remain in use for a minimum of 4 hours. The lowering procedure is also straightforward; the compressed air is withdrawn from the hollow section of the floodgates and replaced by water which allows them to sink to the bottom of the sea and out of sight.

The project is expected to cost in the region of $8.8 billion when completed which includes the cost of the locks which will allow shipping traffic to continue even while the floodgates are in use. In order to protect Venice and the surrounding area, the authorities have also undertaken a strengthening of the coastline and the raising of quaysides and walkways. Even though the Venetian lagoon on which Venice is situated will eventually claim the region, the Italian government is certainly putting up a fight!

Are there any impressive engineering feats you’d add to the list? Add your comments below!

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