A 590-meter-high dam in China will be built entirely by robots

As the world rushes to stop burning fossil fuels and implement more renewables, there is a lot of hype surrounding solar and wind energy. While relatively easier to use, these energy sources do not have nearly the same output capacity — or consistency — as hydropower. China is investing heavily in all of the above and recently announced the construction of a massive dam on the Yellow River in Qinghai Province, which is located on the Tibetan Plateau.

Once completed, the Yangqu Dam is expected to generate nearly five billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year — that’s half a billion more than Arizona’s Hoover Dam — and is planned to be built entirely by robots, without any human labor.

An article published last month in the Journal of Tsinghua University describes a “3D printing system” that uses AI and robots to fill large construction projects. However, based on the description, it’s a bit of a misnomer to equate the system with 3D printing; while smaller construction projects such as 3D printed houses use a printer that spits out a concrete mixture layer by layer, no printer is mentioned in this project description.

Instead, a construction planning system evaluates a digital design model of the project section by section, calculates how much filler material is needed, then has a robot collect and transport the material to the intended section. The robots do “intelligent paving and rolling” to finish a building layer, then send feedback to the planning system. It is 3D printing in the sense that a very high structure goes up layer by layer using an automated process, but most of the time it is not 3D printing because there is no printer.

The project is not being built from scratch, that is, there is already a dam on this site, which was built from 2010, along with a 1,200 megawatt hydroelectric power plant. The existing facility will be expanded.

Human workers will be needed to mine some of the building materials, but the extensive automation of the project ideally means it will be completed faster and with fewer errors than human labor would allow; machines can run 12-hour shifts, or even around the clock. The aim is for the first part to become operational in 2024 and for the entire project to be operational the following year.

In comparison, the Hoover Dam is 726 feet tall and took 5 years to build. And it turns out that building a dam is treacherous work: 96 people died during the construction of the Hoover Dam from causes such as drowning, being hit by falling building materials, or being injured in an explosion to remove natural rock. Another advantage of mechanical work is that the safety of people is not endangered.

The Chinese are no strangers to building huge dams; Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in Hubei Province is the largest hydroelectric power station in the world. At 594 feet, it is almost exactly the same height that Yangqu will ever be completed, but it is much wider.

China aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. They need much more than solar panels and wind turbines to achieve that goal; this is one of many dams being built in the country (to add to the many thousands already out there), and they are also going all in for nuclear.

Both in China and in the rest of the world, the transition to renewable energy is slowly but surely getting underway. The Yangqu Dam is very ambitious, but if it succeeds, it won’t be the first time China proves naysayers wrong.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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