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For every power tool and piece of equipment in the average tool shed or garage, there’s a super-sized version out there. When challenged to build some of the world’s largest structures and most powerful machines, engineers need tools that are sized up to the task. Here are some of the biggest and brawniest industrial and scientific tools on the planet.
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A bold experiment is underway in southern France to build a fusion reactor capable of reaching temperatures 10 times hotter than the core of the sun. The “beating heart” of the ITER reactor, which promises to provide a new source of abundant clean energy, is a magnet powerful enough to lift an aircraft carrier six feet in the air.
Known as the Central Solenoid, the magnet is responsible for confining and shaping a ring of superheated plasma inside the reactor. The cylindrical magnet, nearly 60 feet tall and 14 feet in diameter, can produce a magnetic field strength of 13 Tesla (the unit of measure—not the car brand), roughly 280,000 times stronger than the earth’s magnetic field.
The world’s most powerful laser is actually 192 separate beams aimed at a target roughly the size of a pencil eraser. Inside the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, these lasers emit a blinding flash of light lasting only a billionth of a second but delivering 2 million joules of energy. Temperatures at the target site instantly reach 180 million degrees Fahrenheit (100 million degrees Celsius).
The job of this ultra-powerful laser is to apply extreme heat and pressure—similar to the conditions found inside stars—to fuse hydrogen atoms together and release massive amounts of energy (fusion reaction). Scientists hope that this technology will usher in an era of unlimited, carbon-free energy.
Hydraulic cylinders are a key component of heavy construction equipment like bulldozers, dump trucks and cranes, used to raise and lower massive arms and buckets. But few are as massive—or as powerful—as the huge hydraulic cylinder that Hunger Hydraulics made for a Japanese dredging barge in 2015.
Weighing it at 200 metric tons (more than 440,000 pounds), Hunger’s colossal hydraulic cylinder is one of the heaviest ever made and boasts a Herculean pull force of 330,000 pounds. Hydraulic cylinders work by using pressurized fluid inside the cylinder to extend or retract an arm. Hunger’s hydraulic arm extends 66 feet, making the maximum length of the cylinder 150 feet, or half the length of a football field.
Installed on the dredging vessel, the hydraulic cylinder powers a shovel large enough to hold two tour buses.
After World War II, fighter planes and commercial airliners were designed to be lighter, stronger and faster. Instead of riveting together smaller sheets of metal, single components were stamped using seven-story hydraulic presses. China now owns the largest and most powerful forge press in the world capable of stamping out massive bulkheads and engine parts by applying up to 80,000 tons of pressure.
Forging presses work by the same principles as hydraulic arms. Using pressurized fluid, a dozen heavy-duty hydraulic cylinders pull downward with a crushing stroke. That 80,000 tons of force is more than enough to press red-hot ingots of metal into a steel mold that gives each part its shape.
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One of the biggest challenges for renewable energy sources like wind and solar is “intermittency”—when there’s no wind or sun, they can’t generate electricity. The solution is to store excess electricity from wind and solar in very large batteries that can be tapped when production is slow.
An Australian company CEP Energy announced plans to build the world’s highest-capacity battery in the small town of Kurri Kurri. Made from hundreds of stacks of lithium-ion batteries, the unit will have a capacity of 1,200 MW (1.2 billion watts). A California-based energy company also plans to expand its grid-scale battery to 1,600 MW, enough juice for hundreds of thousands of homes to run on battery power alone.
Wind turbines are monstrous marvels of engineering, capable of converting steady gusts of wind into clean, renewable energy. GE is in the process of building an offshore wind farm with skyscraper-sized turbines measuring 853 feet (260 meters) from base to the tip of the turbine blade (taller than 30 Rockefeller Plaza in NYC). The blades on these behemoths each measure 351 feet (107 meters), making them the longest turbine blades in the world.
In wind power, blade size matters. Bigger turbine blades catch more air, and longer blades produce more torque to turn the rotor, increasing overall efficiency. The towering turbines that GE plans to install off the coast of Germany will each generate, according to the company, enough electricity to power 16,000 European homes.
Bearings are miracles of engineering, allowing heavy, fast-moving parts to glide smoothly and reduce friction. Some of the world’s biggest bearings are used in mining as part of large, fast-rotating drill bits. But currently the world’s largest bearings are installed in the base of the world’s two largest tub cranes, gigantic shipping cranes that can each lift 10,000 metric tons (22 million pounds).
Both the bearings and the huge tub cranes were built by a company called Huisman to be installed on a semi-submersible crane vessel called the Sleipnir. The ring of roller bearings is nearly 100 feet (30 meters) in diameter, allowing the tub cranes to rotate 360 degrees when lifting entire drilling rigs weighing 15,000 metric tons (33 million pounds).
A Korean steelworks is home to the world’s biggest blast furnace, a towering 360-foot (110-meter) forge in which tons of raw materials are reduced to molten iron at temperatures exceeding 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit (1,200 degrees Celsius). In 2019, the POSCO steelworks in Gwangyang upgraded its No. 1 blast furnace to reach an internal capacity of more than 210,000 cubic feet (6,000 cubic meters), making it the largest-capacity blast furnace on the planet.
Inside a blast furnace, pellets of iron ore are dropped in through a rotating chute, where it mixes with fuel (mainly a hardened form of coal called coke). The temperature is kept at a steady 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit (1,200 degrees Celsius) by a ring of powerful gas burners near the bottom of the furnace. The superheated air pushes upward, causing the raw materials and fuel to float within the furnace. After six hours, molten iron and slag (a byproduct) sink to the bottom and flow from openings called tap holes.
The POSCO blast furnace runs 24/7, and all byproduct gas is re-captured to generate electricity for the steelworks.