Delta Works
The world’s largest water-battling structure isn’t a dam—it’s a network. More than 10,000 miles of levees, dikes and dams combine to protect the Nether­lands from the North Sea. The project took half a century to build, but climate-induced sea-level rise means that Dutch engineers will forever be upgrading Delta Works to keep the country dry.

New Safe Confinement
The world’s largest sarcoph­a­gus since the Great Pyramid of Giza in 2560 B.C. will soon entomb the remains of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. To minimize workers’ radiation exposure, the 360-foot-high, 32,000-ton steel archway will be assem­bled 900 feet away from the reactor and slid into place on Teflon bearings. When completed in 2015, it will be the world’s largest movable structure.

Programmable stem cells
First humankind shaped tools out of stone, then steel and silicon. Next up: cells. Thousands of research trials have explored the potential of engineered stem cells, human cells programmed to carry out a specific function of our choosing. To take just one example from earlier this year: bioengineers programmed blood stem cells to morph into immune cells that seek out and kill cells infected with HIV.

International Space Station
Critics point out that this $100-billion laboratory in the sky hasn’t delivered anything close to $100 billion worth of science. Yet as an engi­­neer­ing marvel, it is unsurpassed. Space­walking astro­nauts assembled 40 major structural components, Tinkertoy-style, into a 15-room post-Earth palace that flashes across the sky at 17,000 miles an hour.

Triton 36000/3 Submarine
Filmmaker James Cameron had only one small porthole to see the ocean depths when he reached the Mariana Trench earlier this year. But private submersible maker Triton Submarines is crafting an equally capable submarine with a 360-degree view. A clamshell sphere made entirely of high-pressure glass will allow up to three explorers to maneuver at depth using through-the-glass fiber-optic controls.

Neural-Processing Cores
Computer chips today stall when tasked with pattern-matching operations such as recognizing a face. IBM is developing “neural core” CPUs that mimic the flexible arrangement of neurons in animal brains. Instead of separate processing and memory units, these chips integrate the two so that the processors can learn from incoming data. The first chip has learned to play Pong.

Invisible and essential as air, the global Internet is the most important engineering feat in modern history.

Mponeng Gold Mine
The gold in them thar hills is gone, but there’s plenty left deep underground. To get to it, the South African mining company AngloGold Ashanti drilled more than two miles down, making Mponeng the deepest mine in the world. At such depths, temperatures reach 140 degrees Fahrenheit. The company keeps ambient temperatures below 85 degrees F—and workers conscious—by pumping slurry ice through metal pipes.

Endurance Robot
NASA helped to design this autonomous swimmer to explore vast lakes buried below Antarctic ice sheets. The machine is a first draft of the robots that will one day probe the distant and perilous oceans thought to lie un­der­neath the icy shell of Jupiter’s moon Europa.