Big gets giga

Henry Tricks praises a new sort of grand ambition

Leaders

“You can never think too big”. So proclaims the dusty sign outside a hangar in America’s Mojave desert where boffins are building the Stratolaunch, the world’s biggest aircraft, due for its maiden test flight in 2016. It could be a fitting slogan for a year in which the world’s biggest battery plant, the Gigafactory, will draw global attention and the biggest radio telescope (the size of 30 football pitches) will begin scanning outer space. The recent era has been one of megaprojects, fuelled by China’s growth and the commodities-driven drive for deeper oil wells and bigger mines. But now tech is going big.

Take the space race. The Stratolaunch, a brainchild of Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft, will be a flying launch-pad aimed at shooting satellite-bearing rockets, and eventually astronauts, into orbit. If this big bird gets off the ground, the theory is, rockets could be launched from anywhere into orbit: cheaper than a blast-off from Earth, they could become the Ryanair of low-cost space travel.

In radio astronomy, too, the techies are thinking big—especially in efforts to find the faintest signals of alien life. The Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope, built in southwest China, will lend the world’s most powerful ear. It comes as scientists, such as Stephen Hawking, backed by Yuri Milner, a Russian technology tycoon, have embarked on the “Breakthrough Initiative” to search for extra-terrestrial intelligence.

Silicon Valley has grown rich on scalability. Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, an electric-car company, and of SpaceX, a rocket-maker, wants to wean humans off fossil fuels and take them to Mars; and, for him, size and speed are the essences. Construction of his Gigafactory, near Reno, Nevada, started in 2014. Tesla hopes it will produce its first batteries in 2016—and that economies of scale will cut their cost by a third.

The next big things

Of course, giant infrastructure projects will still be undertaken. China is building the world’s longest bridge, underwater tunnel and gas pipeline. Another fast-growing country—albeit a tiny one—will take the spotlight in 2016 when Panama unveils its expanded canal. And after 20 years of digging, the Gotthard Base Tunnel, the world’s longest train tunnel, will open in Switzerland.

Yet the high-water mark of Chinese growth may have been reached, austerity limits government budgets and the commodities “supercycle” is over. Now the tech cycle is in full swing with it the era of megaprojects is morphing into one of gigaprojects.

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