10 Incredible Modern Engineering Achievements

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Humanity likes nothing more than building insanely large and complicated structures, except maybe reading about large and complicated structures built by other people. Today, we’re going to do the latter. While the ancient people had some amazing engineering achievements, we’ve all seen an article or six about the pyramids and the Great Wall of China. As such, let’s focus on the amazing achievements of relatively modern engineering, such as…

10. Three Gorges Dam

China’s Three Gorges Dam is both one of the most impressive engineering feats of our time and one of the most controversial ones, thanks to the project’s environmental and human cost. When its construction began in 1994, it was the giant country’s largest engineering project, and at the time it was completed in 2006 it was the world’s largest dam structure (These days, it doesn’t even crack the Top 20, in terms of the dam’s physical size). A massive concrete gravity structure that’s 7,660 feet long and up to 607 feet tall, it contains 463,000 metric tons of steel and 37 million cubic yards of concrete. Despite being dwarfed by several other superdams, the Three Gorges Dam is still easily the most productive hydroelectric plant in the world, with its 32 turbine generators and two additional generators able to churn out a massive 22,500 megawatts of electricity.

To put some perspective to the dam’s scale: When it was first put in use, the workers had to use 200 tons of explosives just to level the temporary cofferdam structure that had been preventing the river from reaching the dam. Oh, and when the massive reservoir behind the dam was filled, it actually affected the earth’s rotation.  

9. Offshore gas pipelines

The Langeled pipeline is a 724-mile underwater gas pipeline that was constructed between 2003 and 2007 to transport natural gas from Nyhamna at Norway’s west coast to a receiving terminal in Easington, at the east coast of the United Kingdom. This monster of a delivery system is up to 44 inches in diameter, and the sheer massive size of its components required an upgrade to existing pipe-laying barges. The constructors also had to navigate some pretty insane obstacles, such as constructing a crossing in the depths of 980 feet and performing difficult underwater weldings to existing systems. The welding process alone took roughly 6,000 man hours.  

Still, despite its impressive size, the Langeled line is not the world’s largest offshore pipeline. That honor goes to the 760-mile Nord Stream pipeline and its upcoming parallel sister line Nord Stream 2, running from Russia to Germany. Nord Stream has received its share of criticism due to fears that Europe will become over-reliant on Russian gas, but regardless of your opinion about that particular subject, it’s hard to deny the impressive engineering achievements of a project of that size … as long as you’re not stuck with the bill, which is estimated at $9.76 billion for the original Nord Stream alone.

8. The Millau Viaduct

The Millau Viaduct is not only the world’s tallest bridge, it’s also one of the most impressive ones. At 1,125 feet, it is higher than the Eiffel Tower, and its length of 1.53 miles guarantees that the measurements match. What’s more, the viaduct is designed to look like a huge, yet very slender yacht; It touches the Tam Valley below it in just nine places; the stays in both ends, and seven impressively thin pillars.

The Millau Viaduct was designed by Lord Norman Foster from the idea of French engineer Michel Virlogeux, and it is specifically made to fit the impressive natural beauty of the area with the “delicacy of a butterfly,” as the architect put it. Although the bridge came with an understandably hefty price tag of $524 million, the building company that also constructed the Eiffel Tower happily financed the project in exchange of toll rights for 75 years.  

7. FAST

China makes an appearance on the list again, this time with the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), which is a solid contestant in the Most Contrived Acronyms Olympics, and also the biggest radio telescope in the world. The massive, 1,650-foot-wide satellite dish and the accompanying research facilities cost $180 million and consists of 4,450 individual panels. To put the structure’s massive size in perspective, it’s roughly as big as 30 football fields.

FAST was finished in 2016 and is currently at early-research stages, but once it has been thoroughly tested and debugged, China has announced plans to open it to researchers around the world. Because it’s not only more big and powerful than all the other telescopes but also located in a very radio-quiet region 1,240 miles southwest of Beijing, researchers anticipate that it has up to ten times the potential to discover signals produced by distant, alien civilizations — or even locate an alien homeworld. Apart from the obligatory extraterrestrial life hunting, the telescope will also become handy in a number of different ways, from detecting low-frequency gravitational ways to discovering brand new information about the universe and its beginnings. That is, if they can find enough people to operate it: In 2017, China was struggling to find qualified people to run the facility.

6. The MOSE project

Venice is famous for its channels, architecture, hordes of tourists and outrageous dinner prices. Unfortunately, these days it’s even more famous for the fact that it’s slowly sinking. The MOSE project is the solution the city is banking on to stop its seemingly inevitable march into the sea. “Mose” means Moses in Italian, and the good people of the MOSE project intends to do the same as the big man from Old Testament: they’re trying to part the sea. MOSE stands for “Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico,” or Experimental Electromechanical Module, and consists of a complex system of retractable gates that are positioned in the “harbor mouths” that connect the Lagoon of Venice into the Adriatic Sea. When high floods threat the city, closing the gate system will temporarily be able to isolate the lagoon from the sea, leaving Venice safe from at least the most catastrophic floods.

Unfortunately, ambitious projects tend to come with a lot of teething issues, and MOSE would probably be a few places higher on this list if it wasn’t for the fact that its  was originally supposed to be operational in 2011 (later revised to 2014), but the project has been marred with difficulties and corruption. Its existing structures have been heavily damaged by mold, mussels, salt air and technical issues, and the project’s original price tag (an estimated $1,8 billion) has blown up to $6,18 billion. While MOSE is still in the works, the system is expected to be functional no earlier than 2022 … that is, if all goes well.

5. Langkawi Sky Bridge

Sometimes, small is beautiful. Though by no means a tiny structure, the Langkawi Sky Bridge in Malaysia dwarfs in comparison to some of the other items on this list, but it’s by no means less of an engineering marvel. The pedestrian Sky Bridge won the Swiss Steel Design Award in 2005 for its exceptional, innovative design. The bridge is an impossibly flimsy-looking construction 328 feet above ground … and since said ground is the top of the Machinchang mountain, the views are nothing short of majestic. The curved, free-span bridge — the longest of its king at over 400 feet — is suspended from just a single pylon, and despite its seeming lightness can support up to 250 people at the same time.

The structure abruptly closed down in 2012, which some took to mean that it was too rickety to use and would never open again. However, the bridge was actually just shut down due to lack of maintenance funding, and after securing the money and making some improvements, the officials reopened it for visitors in 2015.

4. Palm Jumeirah

Dubai is noted for ambitious construction projects, and possibly the biggest of them all is Palm Jumeirah, the world’s largest artificial island that also happens to be shaped like a palm tree. The tree island is more than just a decorative feature for passing planes and helicopters to gawk from above. Its ornate shape adds a neat 50 miles of coastline to the city and, as such, the whole island is absolutely packed with luxury hotels, expensive villas and mansions. The construction of the island started in 2001, and according to Business Insider it took 3,257,212,970.389 cubic feet of sand straight from the Persian Gulf, lovingly sprayed into place using GPS satellites to make sure that the intended palm tree shape would be achieved.

Unfortunately, such a massive undertaking has had a significant, negative impact on the area’s marine life and coastal erosion. Greenpeace has gone as far as called Palm Jumeirah a “visual scar” due to its construction process and very presence muddying the once-clear waters with silt that buries entire coral reefs. Oh, and the island is also sinking at a rate of 0.20 inches per year, which is probably going to royally frustrate a good few hotel owners somewhere down the line.

Still, if the whole “artificial, sinking, environmentally disastrous palm island” thing doesn’t seem quite ridiculous enough yet, don’t worry — as always, Dubai is prepared to go above and beyond. Palm Jumeirah is actually just the first of the three super-ornate artificial islands they’re planning to build.

3. The International Space Station

The International Space Station earns its place on the list simply by being the largest structure humanity has ever put into space. 15 nations have contributed to its construction, which was technically completed between 1998 and 2011. However, the station keeps evolving based on the needs of new experiments and missions. The ISS is 357 feet from end to end, which makes it roughly the same size as an American football field, end zones included. The station has been occupied since November 2, 2000, and by early 2018, no less than 230 people from 18 different countries have visited it. The ISS is constantly staffed by a six-person crew of various nationalities, who get to experience 16 sunrises and sunsets every day as the station orbits the Earth every 90 minutes. There, they live and work in a pressurized facility roughly the size of a six-bedroom house, complete with six sleeping quarters, a massive 340-degree view bay window and a gym (which the occupants have to use at least two hours every day to prevent muscle atrophy).

The ISS may seem like it’s far away, but a spaceship can actually reach it in just six hours after leaving the earth. Thanks to the acre of solar panels affixed to it, you can even spot the station from land in certain conditions. NASA even has a website that helps you with sighting opportunities.

2. Large Hadron Collider

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Ah, the Large Hardron Collider! CERN’s massive particle accelerator was greeted with terror as several sensationalist media outlets thought that when it would be switched on in 2008, the machine would create a black hole and destroy the world. As NASA rather sarcastically notes, the LHC completely failed to create an apocalypse. Instead, it has provided humanity with a whole host of stunning discoveries, and even earned several researchers a Nobel prize when it proved their theory of the existence of the Higgs boson by, well, discovering the particle for real.

From a purely physical standpoint, the LCH is a massive, magnificent structure that consists of a 16,78 -mile ring made of superconducting magnets and accelerating structures that boost the energy of the particles. Inside the ring, two high-energy beams travel in opposite directions at nearly the speed of light, in separate, isolated beam pipes that are kept at ultra-high vacuum. The thousands of magnets that direct the beams along the ring structure have to be kept at -456,34 Fahrenheit, which is colder than the temperature of outer space. Even with all this hardware, the LHC’s main function (making particles collide, naturally) is far from an easy task. CERN compares it to firing two needles 6.2 miles apart with so much accuracy that they meet halfway.

1. The Mars Exploration Rovers and Sky Crane

After visiting the Moon and building an actual space station, the next big thing on humanity’s space exploration bucket list was Mars. In 2004, the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity landed on the Red Planet. The two rovers were only expected to be operational for 90 days, but both of them far outlasted their planned missions. Spirit explored the planet until 2009, when it became hopelessly embedded in soft soil. NASA was forced to abandon it after many months of futile attempts to save it, and Spirit’s mission finally ended on May 25, 2011. Opportunity fared even better, and the solar-powered rover was still tenaciously exploring away in the summer of 2018, when a bad, planet-wide dust storm destroyed its systems. While the two rovers failed to find any conclusive evidence of current or past life on Mars, Spirit did discover that Mars had been a significantly wetter planet in the past, and Opportunity provided evidence that the planet may at one point have been suitable for sustaining microbial life.

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In 2012, the dream took a further step forward when a much larger rover called Curiosity landed on the planet’s surface. Its delivery system was a feat of engineering all in itself: Because the rover was too large and heavy for standard airbags, the engineers devised a fantastic technique known as the Sky Crane. This method for “soft landing” is essentially a futuristic platform equipped with steerable engines, which enables it to act as a combination of parachute and jetpack. When the crane neared the ground and slowed to a near-zero velocity, the crane released the rover from its descent stage and gently lowered it to the ground with cables. This way, Curiosity arrived to its destination literally ready to roll. As a downside, the maneuver was extremely risky, and NASA less than lovingly dubbed the process “seven minutes of terror.” Curiosity made the landing, and is still exploring Mars to collect information the planet’s future human visitors will need.

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