The Tallest Elevators On Earth Are Being Tested In an Old Mineshaft

Jeddah's Kingdom Tower will be taller than any other structure ever built. At more than one kilometer high, this supertall will require feats of engineering that, until now, have been the stuff of science fiction. Like the world's tallest, longest, and fastest elevators—which are being developed in a mine shaft in Finland.

Kone, a Finnish elevator company, just announced that it won a contract to design and build 65 elevators for the Kingdom Tower—a project that had been stalled until sputtering back to life earlier this spring. The challenge will be a unique one: Elevator technology is one of the major barriers standing in the way of supertall buildings.

First of all, supertall elevators are put under enormous and unusual stresses, like those introduced from wind shear. Traditional steel rope is very heavy—and at supertall heights, the weight of the cord alone becomes massive. Then there's the heat issue: An elevator plummeting in free fall is moving incredibly fast, and stopping it requires a brake system that can withstand 572 degrees Fahrenheit. Those are just a few of the issues at play here—not to mention efficiency and cost issues.

The Tallest Elevators On Earth Are Being Tested In an Old Mineshaft

How does Kone expect to solve them? Using a technology called UltraRope that it introduced last year. Rather than steel, UltraRope is made out of a carbon fiber core and coated with a special high-friction chemical than can withstand incredible heat and force. Thanks to this coating, UltraRope lasts twice as long as steel cable.

And it's super light, which means it takes less energy to hoist it up a kilometer-high building. Kone's head of technology told Construction Week that a 400-meter elevator's steel cable would weigh 41,116 pounds. The same length of UltraRope cable weighs 2,579 pounds.

Inside Kingdom Tower, Kone will build a series of elevators that double the current height limit, reaching up to 637 meters or 2,089 feet in a single shot. They'll be heavy double deckers, too, but they'll cover a half-mile distances faster than any other elevator in the world.

The Tallest Elevators On Earth Are Being Tested In an Old Mineshaft

It's fascinating news, but it leaves one stone unturned: How do you design an elevator before any buildings tall enough to test it even exist? Kone, thankfully, has quite a bit of experience here; it designed the elevators for 1,970-foot Makkah Clock Royal Tower, currently the third tallest building on Earth, as well as a handful of other supertalls.

To design all lifts for building so tall they don't exist yet, Kone does the opposite: It digs down. Way, way, down: 1,000 feet into a mine shaft in southern Finland that dates back to 1897. That abandoned mine was a perfect solution hiding in plain sight, and in 2008, Kone turned it into elevator testing facility.

The Tallest Elevators On Earth Are Being Tested In an Old Mineshaft

It's the only testing facility of its kind on Earth, and though the maximum testing depth is only 1,000 feet—not one kilometer—it's enough to test the technology Kingdom Tower will need.

"The goal was to develop the technology needed for super- and mega-high-rise buildings," Johannes de Jong, Kone's director of projects and technology, told Bloomberg last year. "This is the only test tower in the world where you can test speeds of 2,000 feet per minute up to 3,500 feet per minute. Others have to rely on simulators, so it's an advantage."

It's incredible to imagine that the technology that will catapult average humans higher into the atmosphere than ever before is being developed hundreds of feet below ground. It'll be another few years until Kingdom Tower starts to rise—but it sounds as though, deep below an abandoned Finnish mine, the work is already beginning.