Amazing Feats of Engineers
When you ask nine-year-olds what they want to be when they grow up, they probably won’t say “an engineer.” That’s too bad, because engineers do amazing things.
Unfortunately, most people don’t know just how amazing. So, for the sake of enlightenment, we asked Michigan Tech engineering alumni to tell us about some of the biggest hurdles they have faced in their careers and how they overcame them. A few of you responded with tales that show what a huge impact engineers can have on their companies, their profession, and their communities.
Here are four of your stories.
Bridge over the River Colorado
by Bonnie Klamerus '83 '91, BS in Civil Engineering
Working for a unit of the Federal Highway Administration, I was the structures manager for the Hoover Dam Bypass Project, whose centerpiece was an arch bridge that spans the Colorado River and links Arizona and Nevada. It was pretty darn hard. Daunting. A bridge engineer’s dream and the biggest challenge I’ve ever had. Coming from Baraga, Michigan, it was difficult for me to imagine the sheer ruggedness of the steep canyon walls and caverns. The terrain was fit for the desert bighorn sheep inhabiting the area.
The bypass, just downstream from the Hoover Dam itself, was begun in 2001 and completed in 2010. It cost $240 million. The Colorado River Bridge deck is 900 feet above the river, 1,900 feet long, with twin arches that span 1,060 feet. It is among the biggest, longest, and highest bridges of its kind in the world. The engineering challenges were imposing. Just think of a survey shot from an instrument on the canyon walls to a point 1,000 feet away—not an easy task when you are looking at fractions of an inch in accuracy.
Merely getting to the site was a big job. It took 150- to 200-foot cuts and fills on two miles of approach roadway in Nevada and on one mile of approach roadway in Arizona. The Arizona approach has two bridges; the Nevada approach has five bridges. When you’re talking $30 million for one mile of road and bridge work (not including the main river span), you know you’ve got extreme site conditions.
Twin parallel tower systems, 325 feet high, supported overhead cableways that were erected by helicopter, aligned with the arches, and used for the majority of the heavy lifting. To support the arch construction, 150-foot-tall temporary concrete towers supported an array of cables attached to alternating segments. The cableway, cables, and towers were dismantled when the project was done. It was like building a cable-stay bridge and then removing it after the arch was complete.
Each arch footing was the size of a two-story building. The arches themselves were cast in place, segment by segment. The six-foot-long closure segment was poured at night to combat the effect of heat on concrete. As the sun rose, those who were awake watched and listened for signs of trouble, but the system worked well. The entire team paused to celebrate.
Designing and constructing a bridge in the shadow of Hoover Dam was awe-inspiring. We were conscious of working for seven years downstream from one of the seven engineering wonders of the world.
The daily physical challenges faced by the workers were mind-blowing. To watch the physical and mental toughness of the laborers and tradesmen trudging up the stairs of the arch, carrying sacks of cement or hoisting rebar, or perched at precarious heights, in that environment, day after day and year after year, forced all of us to work harder and push each other to be the best. Workers bore the extremes of heat and wind. Their safety was paramount. The collapse of the temporary cableway system, which was the contractor’s issue and not the overseers’ fault, did shake the confidence of the team. Nobody was injured, but the mishap stalled the bridge construction by about two years.
Working on this project has been the crowning achievement of my career. Overall, I attribute my success to good people around me, a good education, and persistence and hard work—what I call Upper Michigan traits and Michigan Tech traits.
Introducing Mr. Atom and other perils of a nuclear engineer
by Ray Berg '70, BS in Electrical Engineering, concentration in power
I graduated in June 1970 and began working for Detroit Edison Company. After getting an MS in Nuclear Engineering from the University of Michigan, I joined Edison’s Fermi 2 Nuclear Power Plant engineering team in 1976. I became a systems engineer when the “systems” concept of engineering was just beginning to infiltrate both power plant and automotive design. It was a great experience, and I was really enjoying myself.
One day, the VP of Nuclear showed up at my desk and “advised” me that it was essential that I join the Detroit Edison Speakers Corps and go out into the community and educate people on the true facts of nuclear power, as the anti-nuclear movement was ramping up. The company wanted its young professionals, not the old fogeys, to go out and debate the young protestors. They put me through a brief adversarial public speaking course and sent me out. It started easy with friendly groups like Kiwanis Clubs and elementary schools (I introduced our friend “Mr. Atom”). But then I graduated into heavy-duty assignments like debates at the University of Michigan, where I was called a “babykiller” and “Satan’s agent on Earth” and had very angry, foaming-at-the-mouth people following me to my car. I had blood thrown on me at one event. But I learned to handle all this and take it in stride, and I actually got to be somewhat friendly with several of my regular antinuclear pursuers.
Then Three Mile Island happened on March 28, 1979, a date forever burned into the memory of all nuclear engineers of the time. Detroit Edison reacted, as all utilities did, by immediately forming a safety review task force and promising a top-to-bottom review of the design of their nuclear power plants. I was assigned to be the task-force coordinator for Fermi 2, to get forty or fifty people to react, think outside their comfort zones, and move fast. I was sent to Washington, DC, the next day to meet with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. On the airplane down, everyone was reading newspapers with big headlines about the developing “disaster”: Was the plant melting down? Would Pennsylvania become a dead zone? Then the guy next to me on the plane says to me, “And what kind of work do you do?” Yikes . . .
I worked non-stop for twelve months on this overall safety review. It turned out to be the best professional experience of my life. I learned that plant up and down and gained knowledge that benefited me the rest of my professional career. And best of all, Detroit Edison relieved me from having to go out on the public speaking gigs while I was doing it. But that adversarial experience turned me into a fearless public speaker. And I kept the shirt with the bloodstains as a memory.
Michigan Tech did a great job getting me ready for this!
She saw 3D under the North Sea
by Patricia Henderson '77, BS in Geophysics
I was the first person to interpret three-dimensional seismic data in the Norwegian Sector of the North Sea. This was in the early 1980s, back when I was doing oil exploration for Mobil, and the thought of a three-dimensional cube of data was beyond most people’s comprehension. But I was a big proponent of it.
Our first challenge was to gather the seismic data so that it might be interpreted in 3D. Fortunately, we had access to pioneers in seismic visualization who laid out our first “shooting diagram.” Once we got the data, the next challenge was to process it. The software capable of doing that hadn’t been invented yet, but the guys in the processing center tweaked the two-dimensional processing software so it could handle this new 3D cube of data.
The last hurdle was interpreting it.
Back then, we didn’t have the computing power to handle this huge amount of data. So, I devised a way to create each inline seismic line [a vertical section of the Earth created from a seismic energy source, like dynamite, with reflections showing the different layers of rock in the subsurface] a on a separate sheet of Mylar, which is like thick cellophane that you can print on. In any given 3D survey, there are hundreds of inlines and just as many cross lines to interpret. We put these Mylar sheets on a light table and shined light through all the different vertical inline sections. Then we would note, by hand, the timing of the rock reflections we were interested in on each of the lines; roughly speaking, these are echoes that tell you a feature’s depth under the Earth. Then we created a map from this and hand-contoured the subterranean layers of interest.
Finally, we had to find a way to look at this cube of subterranean data in horizontal slices. So, a company called GSI (Geophysical Services Inc.) created a machine that would allow you to load all the slices of data on a film reel. And we’d put tracing paper with our map contours on the paper on a big screen. Then these displays of data would come up, and we could fine-tune the contour amplitude maps.
The next year I worked with a team from GECO, the geophysical company of Norway, that built one of the first 3D seismic workstations. We found a way to load the information that was on the Mylar sheet onto a computer and store the information electronically in a cube-like form that could be mapped.
Now, of course, we can bring the 3D seismic data directly into a computer, and it’s almost instantly on your computer screen. Back then, what we did was a big breakthrough.
I ended up teaching all over the world on how to interpret 3D seismic data. The first time I gave a speech, in 1981 or 1982, someone in the audience got up and said “How can you believe in this wizardry?” I said, “3D seismic is not wizardry, nor is it a religion that you have to believe in. It’s science.”
It’s unbelievable how far we’ve come in thirty-five years. At the time it was just fun. We were young, and people would say, you can’t do that, and I’d say yes I can. We just gotta figure out how.
Deodorizing a stinky chemical plant: It’s all in the stoichiometry
by Greg Edwards ’79, BS in Chemical Engineering
I’m now in Arizona doing hazardous waste management and some air pollution control work. But this comes from my time working for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (which no longer exists), Air Quality Division.
I was reviewing a permit application from a manufacturer of pool chemicals. They were proposing a scrubber to reduce both chlorine and bromine emissions. As a chemical engineer, I knew the evaluation of the scrubber should have been a simple gas/liquid extraction tower problem. As you may have guessed, it wasn’t, because the operators also didn’t understand the process very well; it was like, “Hey, we just run it like corporate tells us and make the chemicals.”
So I ended up doing a complete chemical engineering review of their production process: stoichiometry, flows, heat balance, mass balance, throw in a little kinetics for good measure. It turned out corporate hadn’t done a process review in several years, and they weren’t too happy about me reevaluating it. However, it was putting out significantly more emissions than it should have, and this is what was causing problems for the scrubber.
Once I detailed the problems and gave them suggested process and scrubber redesigns, they saw the light. It took me about two months to get through everything with them and convince them to make changes.
Epilogue: After they made the changes, they saw a huge decrease in odor complaints from the community, and they were getting better product with less material waste. I really appreciated my education at Michigan Tech!
Do you have a story about overcoming a big professional challenge? We’d love to hear about it. Email the editor, Marcia Goodrich, at email@example.com.