The 8 Most Astounding Engineering Feats of 2012

November 20, 2012

What do algae, a 1-legged software engineer, and Felix Baumgartner have in common?

That’s not the setup for (probably awful) joke. They are just some of the jaw-dropping engineering feats we witnessed in 2012.

Hello from the future!

There’s a lot of really sweet stuff on this list — the University of Michigan made 60-second biofuel, some maniac parachuted from the stratosphere — but 2012 was a several Internet lifetimes ago.  You can either come check out the greatest engineering feats of 2014, or continue reading this post out of historical curiosity.


Dubai Infinity Tower

#8 Skyscraper with a 90° Twist

Why Are We So Impressed? 

The distinctive design of the 72-floor building twists 90 degrees by each floor, or slab plate, rotating 1.08 degrees around a fixed cylindrical core.

“In construction and building design we usually follow the vertical elements. This building is twisted in shape, so none of the elements are vertical except the core in the centre. The core vertical element is a cylinder but all around the floors, none of the columns are vertical, all are inclined in two directions.”

Source: End in sight for Dubai’s Infinity Tower

You probably didn’t know the Dubai Infinity Tower was designed to maximize views from the building – not just to become a landmark among a city of landmarks.

#7 Michigan Team Turns Algae into BioFuel in 60 Seconds

Algae Biodiesel

Why Are We So Impressed? 

Commercial algae-based biofuels currently cost almost $20 a gallon to produce; too expensive to be economical. The breakthrough by the University of Michigan’s Chemical Engineering team was a system for “pressure cooking” the algae, speeding a 90 minute process into 60 seconds.

The yield from this method transformed 65 percent of the green slime into a biocrude – putting us a few steps closer to being able to gas up with algae. Let that sink in.

To put it in perspective, “researchers estimate that an area the size of New Mexico could provide enough oil to match current U.S. petroleum consumption.”

Source: Turning Algae into Biofuel in a Minute

#6 A 6200 ton Zurich Building takes a 60 meter trip

Why Are We So Impressed? 

A 123-year-old building got in the way of a needed railway expansion in Zurich. Rather than demolish the 6,200 ton structure, the companies involved devised a stunning plan to move it on subterranean rail tracks with specialized carriages.

Following 10 months of preparation, hydraulic presses moved the building four meters an hour for nineteen hours, travelling just over 60 meters to arrive at its final destination Wednesday, May 23rd.

#5 Climbing Chicago Tower with a Thought-Controlled Bionic Leg

Thought Controlled Bionic Leg

Why Are We So Impressed? 

A software engineer himself, 31-year-old Zac Vawter lost his right leg in a motorcycle crash in 2009. He became a beta tester for an intuitive prosthetic being developed by American and Canadian researchers for use by wounded veterans and other amputees.

“One of the biggest differences for me is being able to take stairs step-over-step like everyone else,” said Vawter in a press release. “With my standard prosthesis, I have to take every step with my good foot first and sort of lift or drag the prosthetic leg up. With the bionic leg, it’s simple, I take stairs like I used to, and can even take two at a time.”

To prove the efficacy of the prototype, Vawter climbed 103 flights of stairs to the top of the Chicago Tower.

Read more about the Man with a bionic leg.
Image source: The Associated Press, Photographer: Brian Kersey

#4 An 834 mph jump from the Edge of Space

Why Are We So Impressed?  

A human being jumped 24.2 miles above the surface of the earth, aka the stratosphere, travelling over 4 minutes at a speeds reaching 834 miles per hour, and lived to tell about it.  

“When he goes out onto that step, and disconnects the umbilical, this huge team of expertise that I’ve assembled, that all goes away…” Red Bull Stratos’ technical project director, Art Thompson said.

You could easily geek out reading about the biomedical, electrical and other types of engineering and science behind the two-plus-year preparation that went into this jump.

Read more in the full interview with Art Thompson here: Red Bull Stratos’ technical project director, talks circuit breakers, wind shear and biomedical data

#3 SpaceX Dragon Becomes First Private Ship to Dock at Space Station

SpaceX Engineering Feat of 2012

Why Are We So Impressed? 

A private company launched a commercial cargo ship into orbit, docked with the International Space Station, and delivered chocolate-vanilla swirl ice cream to the three station residents.

Okay, they delivered about 1,000 pounds of other important stuff too – food, a pump and 23 student experiments among the scientific equipment. Also notable, SpaceX’s Dragon is the only private resupply ship capable of returning cargo to Earth for retrieval.

The October 2012 commercial cargo ship launch was the first of a dozen supply runs planned under a mega-contract with NASA.

Read more: SpaceX cargo ship returns to Earth after station visit & Private SpaceX Cargo Ship Launching ‘New Era’ for Space Station Today

#2 London Olympics

London Olympics Engineering Feats

Why Are We So Impressed?  

The sheer size and scope of this project speaks for itself:

  • 30,000 construction professionals and engineers put in 700,000,000 man hours to complete this project between 2005 and 2012.
  • Olympic Park held 200,000 seats, 7,500 lights, 120 km of fencing over an area large enough to encompass 357 soccer fields
  • Over 130 km (80.3 miles) of power cables were installed 30 meters underground in two tunnels 6 km long to power the event
  • 480 km (298.2 miles) of telecommunication cable crisscrossed the facilities—enough to “wrap around the London Ferris wheel 1.3 million times,” according to the Media Center.
  • At any given time, the Olympic facility handled 20,000 TV, print and online reporters.

Image Source: Architecture Daily

#1 Mars Curiosity Rover’s Successful Mission

Why Are We So Impressed? 

They built a remote control car-sized robot vehicle to operate on another planet.  If that doesn’t blow your mind, please check your pulse.

Read more: Mars Curiosity Rover: Wheels Down on the Red Planet

FYI: You can follow the Mars Curiosity Rover on Twitter to stay abreast of its movements.

Thanksgiving is this week. That means we were probably premature in rounding up the 8 Engineering Feats that astounded us most in 2012, but take it as a dare. Prove us wrong, world.

Did we miss something?

Have an engineering feat of 2012 we’ve missed? Drop a comment, we’d love to know about it.