Chinese propose to build a dam with a distributed 3D printer

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enlarge / The Chinese already have a number of dams on the generally dry Tibetan plateau.

A recently published study by a team of researchers from Beijing Tsinghua University has revealed plans to build a 594-meter-high dam using robots, 3D printing and artificial intelligence. The researchers claim that no direct human labor is needed to build this massive structure – if the plan goes through, the dam would produce 5 billion kWh of electricity annually. This amount of energy will be enough to meet the power needs of 50 million households in China.

The Yangqu Dam is located on China’s second largest river, the Yellow River, where it flows through Qinghai Province on the Tibetan Plateau. There is already a dam on the river, so the proposal involves increasing the existing structure and increasing its power generation capacity, making it one of the world’s largest dams. If all goes according to plan, the Yangqua Dam will become the largest AI-created 3D-printed structure ever on Earth.

3D printing without a printer

Construction-scale 3D printing technology involves the use of giant 3D printers to produce concrete layers that make up the structure. The researchers at Tsinghua University, on the other hand, have developed a method that allows them to 3D print concrete without a printer. They plan to use an additive manufacturing approach that uses an automated planning system that takes into account the 3D structure. It will use AI-controlled robots instead of a large 3D printer to build the upgrade to the Yangqu Dam.

According to the study, the planning system uses the dam design model to determine the amount of material needed to build a particular section of the dam. The construction robots assigned to that section then collect the filling material and unload it at the intended location. Finally, they perform “intelligent paving and rolling” to convert the material into a 3D printed layer. By repeating this process, multiple layers are created that eventually complete the section.

The lead author of the study and faculty of Tsinghua University’s School of Civil Engineering, LIU Tianyun, explained the process in detail: “Once each construction layer is completed, the robots send information about the construction status to the planning system. The entire filling process then becomes step printed step by step under the control of the 3D printing planning system.” During construction, each robot acts as a worker and as input to the planning system; together, the robots function as a large 3D printer.

This unique approach can save both time and resources, allowing the construction of multiple sections of the Yangqu Dam at once and without a bulky 3D printer that may require continuous human assistance. The robot-made Yangqu Dam will be operational by 2024 – in less than two years. You can compare that to two of the other largest man-made dams, the Oroville Dam in the US and the Three Gorges Dam in China, which took seven and nine years to complete, respectively.

Great idea – will it happen?

The Yangqu Dam is not the first impressive additive manufacturing idea proposed by the researchers at Tsinghua University. In 2021, another team of scientists led the development of a 3D-printed retractable bridge in Shanghai. Operated via Bluetooth, this nine-meter bridge can be fully unfolded in less than 60 seconds. The team has also 3D printed a library building and an 80 meter long concrete bridge. Given these past successes, there is a chance that the government will move forward with this group’s latest idea.

However, when 3D printing is combined with AI and robots (as planned for the Yangqu dam project), it can also pose problems. Building a massive structure similar to the Yangqu Dam generally requires hundreds of human workers and many other types of low-skilled workers; widespread adoption of AI-powered robots could end these jobs.

Skilled workers account for about 30 percent of China’s total workforce, so automation practices could threaten the livelihoods of a large population in the country. Safety is also incredibly important for dams of this size, and we have no experience evaluating the output of these types of processes.

3D printing has several advantages over traditional construction methods; for example, a tiny house that could take months to complete can be built in 24 hours and at a much lower budget using 3D printing. NASA even has plans to use 3D printing to build human-friendly structures on the moon. The approach proposed in this document has the potential to provide further options for future constructions by removing the printer completely.

Journal of Tsinghua University, 2022. DOI: 10.16511/j.cnki.qhdxxb.2022.25.045 (About DOIs)

Rupendra Brahambhatt is an accomplished journalist and filmmaker. He brings news about science and culture, and for for the past five years he has worked with news agencies, magazines and media brands operating in different parts of the world.

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.

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