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Last Updated: Friday, 7 May, 2004, 14:42 GMT 15:42 UK
What will they think of next?
By Nick Triggle
BBC News Online

Critics lampooned the suggestion that the UK and France could be linked by a tunnel under the sea, but a decade ago the goal was achieved and history made. So what grand plans are next?

The Channel Tunnel has been blighted by difficulties - a fire, slow rail connections, enormous debts and shareholder revolt. Yet despite this, the appetite for new, ever more ambitious feats of engineering is as strong as ever.

If engineers get their way the coming decades will see the completion of tunnels linking continents, offshore airports and the longest bridges the world has ever seen.

Malaysia's 452m Petronas Twin Towers, the world's highest building, will quickly be overtaken by projects in Dubai, China and Taiwan.

There is even talk of a space elevator - which will carry people from Earth to the stars without the need for cumbersome spaceships.

Cheap and fast

Those who doubt the abilities of engineers to make their fanciful projects a reality are quickly dismissed. The only problem, they argue, is finding the backers.

If we were to become incredibly novel we could build islands off-shore for airports
Bob McKitterick

"There is nothing in this industry we cannot do, it is just a matter of cost," says Bob McKitterick of engineering consultancy Scott Wilson, and a former president of the Institution of Structural Engineers.

Transport and travel are among the areas set to see the greatest innovation - with the demand for cheap, fast and convenient ways to get around likely to provide much of the momentum needed to get projects started.

The planned expansion of Heathrow and other airports is seen as essential to the UK's future economic prosperity - yet the plans are deeply unpopular with local residents and environmentalists. Engineers believe they may have the solution.

"If we were to become incredibly novel we could build islands off-shore for airports," says Mr McKitterick.

He suggests the terminals, which could be built by joining several oil rigs together and linked to the mainland by tunnels, would "reduce noise and avoid building in overcrowded areas".

'Fantasy projects'

There is enthusiasm for tunnels elsewhere, with plenty of ambitious proposals being put forward - even if the finance is not yet in place.

Work on the Channel Tunnel
Switzerland: Gotthard Base Tunnel, due to open in 2010 (35 miles)
Spain/Morocco: Tests on rail tunnel under Strait of Gibraltar
Spain and Morocco have agreed a programme of engineering tests for a rail tunnel under the Strait of Gibraltar. A decision on whether to go ahead is expected in four years.

Mike Chrimes, of the Institution of Civil Engineers, says there is also talk of a tunnel linking mainland Britain and Ireland. He says it would be on the sea bed, rather than underground, in a bid to save money.

"Something like this is expensive, it would run into billions of pounds and be longer than the Channel Tunnel but Europe is keen on it," says Mr Chrimes.

He adds: "These are fantasy projects that given the funding and political will could be achieved. Civil engineers would like to do them but they are not always a government priority."

'Great demand'

And then there are bridges. The one mile (1.6km) long Stonecutters Bridge, which is being built in Hong Kong over the next four years, is set to become the longest single-span, cable-stayed bridge.

There is great demand for transport improvements and that is what a lot of the major civil engineering projects are about

A two mile (3.7km) bridge spanning the Strait of Messina between Sicily and Calabria in southern Italy has also been proposed, but questions still remain over where the 3bn funding is going to come from.

If completed, it would be the longest suspension bridge in the world.

Talks have also been going on to link Sri Lanka and India across the Palk Strait by a bridge, replicating an ancient 19 mile (30km) land crossing which may or may not have been built by humans, but which is still visible from space.

"There is great demand for transport improvements and that is what a lot of the major civil engineering projects are about," says engineering firm Arup, which is involved in the Hong Kong scheme.

Civil engineers are also keen to see the completion of a 16,000 mile (25,800km) pan-American super highway, linking Alaska to the tip of South America.

Much of the road is already in place but gaps remain in areas in Colombia and through the Andes.

Water supplies

Transport aside, many industry experts predict water-related projects may soon begin to dominate civil engineering.

Suspension bridge
Bridges are getting longer

"When there were water shortages a few summers ago there was talk of building a pipeline from the north of England to the south," says Ian Cross, director of studies at the department of civil engineering at the University of Portsmouth.

"If there are shortages in the future this may be raised again."

He also believes there desalination plants used in the Middle East to convert sea water into drinking water could have to be built in northern climes.

'Mass transportation'

While these projects may be ambitious, they pale into insignificance when compared to the Nasa's plans for a space elevator.

A 25,000 mile (40,000km) cable would be tethered between a base station - probably in the ocean - and an orbiting satellite, which stays at the same point above the earth as it rotates on its axis.

Satellites, payloads and people would be able to move up and down the cable cheaply and quickly.

"It has the potential to provide mass transportation to space in the same way highways, railroads, power lines, and pipelines provide mass transportation across the Earth's surface," says Nasa.

It is spending several millions of dollars researching the idea and while it admits the idea is still far from being a reality, it believes the system could be in place in the second half of the 21st Century.

Unfortunately the fastest lift currently available would take over four months to reach its destination.

Perhaps that's something engineers could set their minds to in the meantime.

What projects would you like to see? Tell us using the form below.

I would like to see a seamless intercontinental highway system, with a bridge crossing the Berring strait between Alaska and Russia. Imagine being able to drive from South Africa to Argentina; that would be a spectacular road trip.
Matt Cauller, US

Years ago there was talk of a project to send ice from the poles to countries like Africa to solve water shortage problems. Whatever happened to these?
Andy Baxendale, UK

We should put massive floats around the UK and then sail it to the mediterainian. Think of all the money we would save by people staying here for their holidays and lower heating bills.
Oliver, UK/DK

How about a high-speed glass-tubed undersea railway to the US? You could watch the hungry sharks swimming about instead of a boring empty sky, which could get exciting if they try attacking the glass tube.
Chris King, Cuckooland

There are plans for a tunnel between London and New York - it floats at a depth of 100m. With the air removed a maglev train [which floats above magnets] could reach New York in a little over an hour.
Brian M Witham, UK

We've passed the year 2000 yet I still can't get a hovercar, nor do I see anyone wearing silver jumpsuits (in public). Let's achieve these long-overdue things first.
Gillian, England

Point-to-point personal air travel to anywhere on the planet. All controlled by computer. Small vehicles, get in, enter the destination, sit back and relax. No accidents. No roads. No railways. No tunnels. No bridges. All we need is a decent clean energy source to fly these things and some good technical solutions.
Lee Noonan, UK

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Disclaimer: The BBC may edit your comments and cannot guarantee that all e-mails will be published.


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