The most ingenious engineering feats of 2022
Zero emission vehicles, artificial intelligence and self-charging gadgets have helped to remake and update some of technology’s most important innovations over the past few centuries. A smaller, more flexible solar panel could mean that personal devices such as headphones and remote controls will be wireless and not need to be connected to the grid. A suite of sensors and artificial intelligence allow boats to sail human-free between the UK and the US. Engineers are creating new ways to make chemical factories, energy facilities and trucks run on hydrogen, battery power, or other non-fossil fuel sources.
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1915 Canakkale by the Republic of Turkey: The world’s longest suspension bridge
Canakkale Motorway Bridge Construction Investment Operation
An international team of engineers had to solve several difficult challenges to build the world’s largest suspension bridge, which stretches 15,118 feet across the Dardanelles Strait in Turkey. To construct it, engineers used tugboats to float out 66,000-ton concrete foundations known as caissons to serve as pillars. They then flooded chambers in the caissons to sink them 40 meters (131 feet) deep into the seabed. The bridge deck was constructed using prefabricated sections. Completed in March 2023, the bridge boasts a span between the two towers that measures an incredible 6,637 feet. The bridge reduces commute time by reducing congestion in the Strait. This is a win-win situation for everyone.
NuGen by Anglo American: World’s largest hydrogen fuel cell EV
When carrying a full load of rock, the standard issue Komatsu 930E-5 mining truck weighs over 1 million pounds and burns 800 gallons of diesel per work day. Collectively, mining trucks emit 68 million tons of carbon dioxide each year (about as much as the entire nation of New Zealand). Anglo American hired First Mode, an American contractor, to create a hydrogen fuel cell version for their mining truck. It’s called NuGen. Since the original Komatsu truck already had electric traction motors, powered by diesel, the engineers replaced the fossil-fuel-burning engine with eight separate 800-kw fuel cells that feed into a giant 1.1 Mwh battery. The battery also captures power via regenerative brakes. The truck was deployed at a South African platinum mine on May 31st. It refuels with green hydrogen from a nearby solar farm.
Hydeal Espana by ArcelorMittal, Enagas, Grupo Fertiberia and DH2 Energy: The biggest green hydrogen hub
Hydrogen is a useful fuel source for industrial decarbonization. To get the gas at scale, you need to use energy from natural gas to convert water into hydrogen and oxygen using electrical currents. This process must be powered by renewable energy in order to be sustainable. An industrial consortium in Spain is made up of the four companies mentioned above. It is currently working on HyDeal Espana which will be the largest green hydrogen hub in the world. The panels have a capacity of 9.5 GW and will power electrolysers that separate hydrogen from water at unprecedented scale. The project will help create fossil-free ammonia (for fertilizer and other purposes), and hydrogen for use in the production of green steel. The hub is scheduled to be completed in 2030, and according to its estimates, the project will reduce the greenhouse gas footprint of Spain by 4 percent.
DALL-E 2 by Open AI: A groundbreaking text-to-image generator
Art students often imitate the style of a master in their training. DALL-E 2 from Open AI takes this technique up to a level only artificial intelligence can achieve. It analyzes hundreds of millions of captioned pictures scraped from the Internet. It allows users to create text prompts, which the algorithm converts into pictures in under a minute. The output is superior to other image generators and the “happy accidents”, which feel like real creativity, are getting rave reviews. The tool is not only used by artists, but also urban planners and reconstructive surgeons to visualize rough concepts.
The P12 shuttle by Candela: A speedy electric hydrofoil ferry
When the first Candela P12 electric hydrofoil goes into service next year in Stockholm, Sweden, it will take commuters from the suburbs to downtown in about 25 minutes. That’s a big improvement from the 55 minutes it takes on diesel ferries. Because the P12 produces almost no wake, it is allowed to exceed the speed restrictions placed on other watercraft; it travels at roughly 30 miles per hour, which according to the company makes it the world’s fastest aquatic electric vessel. The computer-guided stabilization technology is designed to make the ride smooth. The boats are an environmentally friendly way to avoid congestion on tunnels or bridges.
Bioforge by Solugen: Zero-emission chemical factory
Petrochemical plants often require acres of tall columns and snaking pipe to convert fossil fuels into useful products. In addition to producing toxic emissions like benzene, these facilities put out 925 million metric tons of greenhouse gas every year, according to an IEA estimate. But outside Houston, Solugen built a “Bioforge” plant that produces 10,000 tons of chemicals like fertilizer and cleaning solutions annually through a process that yields zero air emissions or wastewater. The secret sauce is made up of enzymes. Instead of using fossil fuels for feedstock, these enzymes turn corn syrup into useful chemicals for products at a lower cost and with a higher efficiency than traditional fossil fuel processes. These enzymes love to eat old cardboard pieces that can’t go away, making it a valuable source of feedstock. Solugen has signed a deal with a large company to convert cardboard landfill waste into usable materials.
HydroSKIN by ILEK/U of Stuttgart: Zero-Emissions Cooling
Institute for Lightweight Structures and Conceptual Design (ILEK), University of Stuttgart
Air conditioners and fans already consume 10 percent of the world’s electricity, and AC use is projected to triple by the year 2050. There are other ways to cool structures. HydroSKIN, an add-on to an exterior facade, was installed in a Stuttgart building. It uses layers of modern textiles to replace the old technique of using wet cloths to cool the air by evaporation. The top layer is a mesh to keep out insects and debris. The second layer is a thick spacer fabric that absorbs water, whether it’s rain or water vapor in humid conditions. It then allows for evaporation in hot temperatures. An optional layer that provides additional absorption is the third. The fourth layer, located closest to the building’s wall, is an optional film that absorbs moisture. It can be stored or drained. A preliminary estimate found that a single square meter of HydroSKIN can cool an 8x8x8 meter (26x26x26 feet) cube by 10 degrees Kelvin (18 degrees F).
Powerfoyle by Exeger: Self-charging gadgets
Consumer electronics in the U.S. used about 176 terawatt hours of electricity in 2020, more than the entire nation of Sweden. Exeger, a Swedish company, has developed a new architecture of solar cells that is compact and flexible. It can also be integrated into a variety self-charging gadgets. Although silicon solar panels are cheap and can be used on a large scale, they are fragile and require silver lines to conduct electricity. Exeger’s Powerfoyle updates a 1980s innovation called dye-sensitized solar cells with titanium dioxide, an abundant material found in white paint and donut glaze, and a new electrode that’s 1,000 times more conductive than silicon. Powerfoyle can also be printed to look like carbon fiber, brushed steel, or plastic. It can be found in self-charging headphones from Urbanista and Adidas, as well as a bike helmet and a GPS-enabled dog collar.
The Mayflower by IBM: Uncrewed trans-Atlantic voyage
Collecting data under the harsh salt waves and strong winds of the Atlantic can be dangerous, dull, and even dangerous. Enter the Mayflower, an AI-captained, electrically-powered ship. It has 30 sensors and 16 computing devices that can process data onboard in lieu of a galley, toilets, or sleeping quarters. After the Mayflower successfully flew itself from Plymouth, UK to Plymouth, MA earlier in the year (with pit stops in Canada and the Azores due to mechanical failures), the team is now preparing a vessel that is twice as large for a longer journey. The boat collects data on everything, from whale behavior to the behavior of eddies and gyres, at a fraction of the cost of a crewed voyage. It also doesn’t risk human life. The next milestone will be a 12,000 mile trip from the UK to Antarctica, with a return trip via the Falkland Islands.
The Wheatridge Renewable Energy Facilities by NextEra Energy Resources and Portland General Electric: A triple threat of renewable energy
In Oregon, the Wheatridge Renewable Energy Facilities, co-owned by NextEra Energy Resources and Portland General Electric (PGE), is combining solar, wind, and battery storage to bring renewable energy to the grid at utility scale. The batteries are what stabilize the intermittent wind and solar power. All told, it touts 300 megawatts of wind, 50 megawatts of solar, and 30 megawatts of battery storage capable of serving around 100,000 homes, and it’s already started producing power. The facility is all part of the Pacific Northwestern state’s plan to achieve 100-percent carbon-free electricity by 2040.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.