For every power tool and piece of equipment in the average tool shed or garage, there’s an oversized version. When challenged to build some of the world’s largest structures and most powerful machines, engineers need tools that are up to the task. Here are some of the biggest and most muscular industrial and scientific tools on the planet.
The strongest magnet in the world
A daring experiment is underway in the south of 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 clean and abundant new source of energy, is a magnet strong enough to lift an aircraft carrier six feet into 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 measurement – not the make of the car), about 280,000 times stronger than the earth’s magnetic field.
The most powerful laser in the world
The world’s most powerful laser is actually made up of 192 separate beams aimed at a target roughly the size of a pencil eraser. Inside the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, these lasers emit a blinding flash of light that lasts only a billionth of a second but delivers 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 together hydrogen atoms and release massive amounts of energy (fusion reaction). Scientists hope this technology will usher in an era of unlimited, carbon-free energy.
The heaviest hydraulic cylinder in the world
Hydraulic cylinders are a key part of heavy construction equipment such as 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 ram that Hunger Hydraulics made for a Japanese dredge barge in 2015.
Weighing 200 metric tons (over 440,000 pounds), Hunger’s colossal hydraulic cylinder is one of the heaviest ever made and boasts a herculean pull 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, bringing the maximum cylinder length to 150 feet, or half the length of a football field.
Installed on the dredging vessel, the hydraulic ram powers an excavator large enough to hold two tourist buses.
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The most powerful forging press in the world
After World War II, fighter aircraft and commercial airliners were designed to be lighter, stronger and faster. Instead of riveting smaller sheets of metal together, simple components were stamped using seven-stage hydraulic presses. China now has the largest and most powerful forging press in the world capable of crushing massive bulkheads and engine parts by applying up to 80,000 tons of pressure.
Forging presses work on the same principles as hydraulic arms. Using pressurized fluid, a dozen heavy-duty hydraulic cylinders pull down with an overwhelming stroke. Those 80,000 tons of force are more than enough to press red-hot metal ingots into a steel mold that gives each piece its shape.
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The highest capacity battery in the world
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 produce electricity. The solution is to store excess wind and solar power in very large batteries that can be tapped when production is slow.
An Australian company CEP Energy has announced plans to build the world’s most powerful battery in the small town of Kurri Kurri. Made from hundreds of lithium-ion battery cells, 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 to run hundreds of thousands of homes on battery power alone.
The largest wind turbine blade
Wind turbines are monstrous marvels of engineering, capable of converting steady gusts of wind into clean, renewable energy. GE is building an offshore wind farm with skyscraper-sized turbines measuring 853 feet (260 meters) from base to turbine blade tip (higher than 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York). The blades of these behemoths each measure 107 meters (351 feet), making them the longest turbine blades in the world.
In wind power, blade size matters. Larger turbine blades take in more air and longer blades produce more torque to spin the rotor, increasing overall efficiency. The towering turbines that GE plans to install off the German coast will each, the company says, produce enough electricity to power 16,000 European homes.
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The largest bearings in the world
Bearings are miracles of engineering, allowing heavy, fast parts to glide smoothly and reduce friction. Some of the largest bearings in the world are used in mining as part of large, fast-spinning drill bits. But currently, the world’s largest bearings sit at the base of the world’s two largest tank cranes, gigantic maritime cranes that can each lift 10,000 metric tons (22 million pounds).
The bearings and huge tank cranes were built by a company called Huisman for installation on a semi-submersible crane vessel called the Sleipnir. The roller bearing ring is nearly 100 feet (30 meters) in diameter, allowing the tank cranes to rotate 360 degrees when lifting entire drilling rigs weighing 15,000 metric tons (33 million pounds). ).
The largest blast furnace in the world
A Korean steelworks is home to the world’s largest blast furnace, a towering 110-meter (360-foot) 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, POSCO steel mill in Gwangyang upgraded its No. 1 blast furnace to achieve an internal capacity of over 210,000 cubic feet (6,000 cubic meters), making it the largest capacity blast furnace in the planet.
Inside a blast furnace, iron ore pellets are dropped through a rotating chute, where they mix with fuel (mainly a hardened form of coal called coke). The temperature is kept at a constant 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit (1,200 degrees Celsius) by a ring of powerful gas burners near the bottom of the oven. The superheated air pushes upward, causing the raw materials and fuel to float in the furnace. After six hours, the molten iron and slag (a by-product) sink to the bottom and flow out through openings called tapholes.
POSCO’s blast furnace operates 24/7 and all gaseous by-products are recovered to generate electricity for the steel mill.