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Extreme Engineering

Engineering is the use of physics to design buildings, tools, vehicles, or related infrastructure.  We’ll examine real world engineering projects, and see how these techniques may be extended to proposed mega-engineering projects.


  • Ask questions that arise from examining models or a theory, to clarify and/or seek additional information and relationships.
  • Ask questions to clarify and refine a model, an explanation, or an engineering problem.
  • Evaluate a question to determine if it is testable and relevant.
  • Ask and/or evaluate questions that challenge the premise(s) of an argument, the interpretation of a data set, or the suitability of the design

Science and engineering practices: NSTA National Science Teacher Association

Next Generation Science Standards Appendix F: Science and Engineering Practices

Extreme Engineering: Tokyo’s Sky City

Sky City 1000 is a proposed supertall skyscraper envisioned in the Tokyo metropolitan area. It was announced in 1989 during the height of the Japanese asset price bubble. It would be 1,000 meters (3,281 ft) tall and 400 m (1,312 ft) wide at the base, and a total floor area of 8 km2 (3.1 sq mi).

The design would house 35,000 full-time residents, as well as 100,000 workers. It comprises 14 concave dish-shaped “Space Plateaus” stacked one upon the other. The interior of the plateaus would contain greenspace, and on the edges of the building, would be the apartments, offices, commercial facilities, schools, theatres, etc.

Question: Assuming unlimited money and material, what showstoppers exist against building a skyscraper that is 5 miles tall?


On a separate sheet of paper answer the following questions, in complete sentences.
1 Where did engineers propose to build this?
2. Why did they propose building this?
3. What advantages do they believe could come from living in this?
4. What are the hazards and threats of living in a place like this?
5. What difficulties would engineers and construction workers have in building something many miles tall?

Discovery Channel

Discovery Channel

Extreme Engineering: Transatlantic Tunnel

A transatlantic tunnel is a theoretical tunnel that would span the Atlantic Ocean between North America and Europe possibly for such purposes as mass transit. Some proposals envision technologically advanced trains reaching speeds of 500 to 8,000 kilometres per hour. Most conceptions of the tunnel envision it between the United States and the United Kingdom ‒ or more specifically between New York City and London.

Advantages compared to air travel could be increased speed, and use of electricity instead of scarce oil based fuel, considering a future time long after peak oil. The main barriers to constructing such a tunnel are cost with estimates of between Cost: $88 billion – $175 billion as well as the limits of current materials science. Existing major tunnels, such as the Channel Tunnel, Seikan Tunnel and the Gotthard Base Tunnel, despite using less expensive technology than any yet proposed for the transatlantic tunnel, struggle financially.

–  “Transatlantic tunnel.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Trans-Atlantic tunnel



What is the English Channel Tunnel? What does it connect? How was it built?


What is the Mid-Atlantic Ridge? How might it have an effect on the construction of the tunnel?

Video: Mid Atlantic Ridge

What were some of the problems associated with creating an immersed tunnel?

Resisting earthquakes: Marmaray project in Turkey

Is a Transatlantic tunnel technically possible today? How feasible would it be?

What is air pressure? Why is pressure greater at deeper ocean levels?



We couldn’t just build this tunnel under water: We’d need to build segments of the tunnel in land-based facilities, and transport them by boat to their desired location. Based on some real-world tunnel projects, write a paragraph explaining how this might be done:


What is the Gulf Stream? How might this effect the construction of the tunnel?

What is friction? How does it affect the velocity of a train? What idea was proposed to solve this issue when creating the Transatlantic Tunnel? How will it work?

How do engineers propose to solve the issue of air resistance?

How safe is a train traveling at 5,000 miles per hour? Can passengers survive that speed?

Classroom Activities

Discuss seismic activity and the risks associated with drilling over hot spots. Locate a map and plot the hot spots of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Is there a way to avoid drilling through these hot spots? How far out of the way would engineers have to travel?

Research the work of Frank Davidson and Jules Verne. Although Verne’s works are science fiction, are there any similarities between his ideas and Davidson’s?

Write a paper about an immersed-tube tunnel, such as the Bay Area Rapid Transit System, or Boston’s Big Dig. How was it created? What were some of the obstacles that were encountered during its construction? Have there been any disasters for passengers traveling in the system? Has the system been improved since the disaster?

External links

Trans-Atlantic tunnel, from maglev.net


China is planning an engineering marvel: a 76 mile long tunnel more than twice the length of the Channel Tunnel underneath Bohai Bay


Boston’s Big Dig


Proposed tunnel across the Bering strait


_____ _____ _____ _____

Extreme Engineering: (next topic)

Introduction: When engineers design a building, they have to consider all of the forces on every element in the structure. Doesn’t matter if they are designing a building, airplane, overpass or tunnel – it all comes down to using Newton’s laws of physics & forces. In this activity, we’ll use an app to study the effect of changing: Forces, Loads, Materials and Shapes, on a structure.


  1. Forces: Forces act on big structures in many ways. Click on one of the actions to explore the forces at work and to see real-life examples. Squeezing, stretching. bending, sliding, twisting
  2. Loads: Forces that act on structures are called loads. All structures must withstand loads or they’ll fall apart. In order to build a structure, you need to know what kinds of external forces will affect it. Weight of structure, weight of objects (live load), soft soil, temperature, earthquakes, wind, vibration
  3. Materials: What you build a structure out of is just as important as how you build it: Different materials have vastly different properties. Click on a material to find out more about it, and put it to the test. Wood, plastic, aluminum, brick, concrete, reinforced concrete, cast iron, steel
  4. Shapes: The shape of a support affects its ability to resist loads.The shape comparisons here depend upon the following conditions: each shape is of equivalent thickness, the joints are hinged, and the live load is applied downward to the structure at a single point at its top and center.

Building Big forces app: PBS Building Big PBS app

_____ _____ _____ _____

Extreme Engineering: Space Elevators


A space elevator is a proposed type of space transportation system. The main component would be a cable (also called a tether) anchored to the surface and extending into space. The design would permit vehicles to travel along the cable from a planetary surface, such as the Earth’s, directly into space or orbit, without the use of large rockets.

An Earth-based space elevator would consist of a cable with one end attached to the surface near the equator and the other end in space beyond geostationary orbit (35,800 km altitude). The competing forces of gravity, which is stronger at the lower end, and the outward/upward centrifugal force, which is stronger at the upper end, would result in the cable being held up, under tension, and stationary over a single position on Earth.

With the tether deployed, climbers could repeatedly climb the tether to space by mechanical means, releasing their cargo to orbit. Climbers could also descend the tether to return cargo to the surface from orbit.

The concept of a space elevator was first published in 1895 by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. His proposal was for a free-standing tower reaching from the surface of Earth to the height of geostationary orbit. Like all buildings, Tsiolkovsky’s structure would be under compression, supporting its weight from below.

Since 1959, most ideas for space elevators have focused on purely tensile structures, with the weight of the system held up from above by centrifugal forces. In the tensile concepts, a space tether reaches from a large mass (the counterweight) beyond geostationary orbit to the ground. This structure is held in tension between Earth and the counterweight like an upside-down plumb bob.

To construct a space elevator on Earth the cable material would need to be both stronger and lighter (have greater specific strength) than any known material. Development of new materials which could meet the demanding specific strength requirement is required for designs to progress beyond discussion stage.

Video – NOVA Science Now 

NOVA Science Now Space elevator – 11 minutes

pre-viewing: learn these vocabulary terms

  1. geosynchronous orbit
  2. prototype:  
  3. buckyball: 
  4. carbon nanotubes: 
  5. What are the arrangements of carbon atoms in:

Group 1: Diamonds, coal, graphite
Group 2: Oil, natural gas, plastics, pharmaceuticals
Group 3: Proteins, sugars

    6. How can carbon exist in such dramatically different forms? (Hint: valence electrons, dot structures)

Size and scale

The carbon nanotube space elevator would transport materials into geosynchronous orbit around Earth. How does the distance of this geosynchronous orbit compare to the distance of space explored by a space shuttle? Give students the Size and Distance Stats below and have them calculate, then show, the scale of the two orbits.
Have students use sheets of paper to make models showing the scale. Place the sheets side by side for comparison.

Size and Distance Stats
Earth is represented by a 10″ globe (or use whatever size globe you have)

actual diameter of Earth = 8,000 miles

space shuttle orbit = use an orbit of 200 miles above surface of Earth ( Note: The space shuttle’s orbit ranges from 115 to 250 miles.)

geosynchronous satellite orbit = 22,000 miles above surface of Earth

After viewing

In building a space elevator:
7. Which of these components/materials would be the most difficult to obtain?
8. Which are readily available?
9. How long are the longest carbon nanotubes made so far?
10. What are some of the other challenges we would encounter in building this? (Note 2 – and also briefly note possible solutions. See the endcard, below.)


A basic space elevator

Carbon nanotubes are one of the best candidates for a material strong enough to create a space elevator.

carbon nanotubes


Analyzing a space elevator with a simple free-body diagram

Illustration of the Coriolis force

AP Physics Space Elevator analysis

Additional video resources

Engineering challenges lie ahead

From NOVA Science Now

Specific engineering challenges


Da Vinci’s Technology (Modern Marvels)

From History.com

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was a painter, architect, inventor, and student of all things scientific. His natural genius crossed so many disciplines that he epitomized the term “Renaissance man.”
Today he remains best known for his art, including two paintings that remain among the world’s most famous and admired, Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.
Art, da Vinci believed, was indisputably connected with science and nature.
Largely self-educated, he filled dozens of secret notebooks with inventions, observations and theories about pursuits from aeronautics to anatomy. But the rest of the world was just beginning to share knowledge in books made with moveable type, and the concepts expressed in his notebooks were often difficult to interpret.
As a result, though he was lauded in his time as a great artist, his contemporaries often did not fully appreciate his genius—the combination of intellect and imagination that allowed him to create, at least on paper, such inventions as the bicycle, the helicopter and an airplane based on the physiology and flying capability of a bat.

– http://www.history.com/topics/leonardo-da-vinci

Da Vinci flying-machine

Davinci car

Modern Marvels is an American television series on the History Channel. It focuses on how technologies affect today’s society. Modern Marvels has produced over 650 one-hour episodes covering various topics involving (to list a few) science, technology, electronics, mechanics, engineering, architecture, industry, mass production, manufacturing, and agriculture.

da-vinci-invention illustrations

Da Vinci’s World – Engineering An Empire

Engineering an Empire is a program on The History Channel that explores the engineering and architectural feats of some of the greatest societies on this planet. It is hosted by Peter Weller, famous as an actor, but also a lecturer at Syracuse University, where he completed his Master’s in Roman and Renaissance Art. The executive producer is Delores Gavin.

Engineering an Empire

Learning Standards

2016 Massachusetts Science and Technology/Engineering Curriculum Framework
HS-PS2-1. Analyze data to support the claim that Newton’s second law of motion is a mathematical model describing change in motion (the acceleration) of objects when acted on by a net force.

HS-PS2-10(MA). Use free-body force diagrams, algebraic expressions, and Newton’s laws of motion to predict changes to velocity and acceleration for an object moving in one dimension in various situations

2016 High School Technology/Engineering

HS-ETS1-1. Analyze a major global challenge to specify a design problem that can be improved. Determine necessary qualitative and quantitative criteria and constraints for solutions, including any requirements set by society.

HS-ETS1-2. Break a complex real-world problem into smaller, more manageable problems that each can be solved using scientific and engineering principles.

HS-ETS1-3. Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, aesthetics, and maintenance, as well as social, cultural, and environmental impacts.

HS-ETS1-4. Use a computer simulation to model the impact of a proposed solution to a complex real-world problem that has numerous criteria and constraints on the interactions within and between systems relevant to the problem.

HS-ETS1-5(MA). Plan a prototype or design solution using orthographic projections and isometric drawings, using proper scales and proportions.

HS-ETS1-6(MA). Document and present solutions that include specifications, performance results, successes and remaining issues, and limitations.

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