In the ongoing race to claim the title of "Tallest Building in the World" (currently held by the 828-meter-tall Burj Khalifa in Dubai), it's the ubiquitous elevator that may make the difference. Espoo, Finland-based KONE Corporation's UltraRope tech will allow skyscrapers to reach new heights, let elevators go twice as far, will last twice as long as old-school cables, and can even reduce elevator delays on windy days.
"While elevators have enabled the rise of city skylines, the technology had reached its height limit: Elevator travel distances of more than 500 meters are not feasible as the weight of the ropes themselves becomes so large that more ropes are needed to carry the ropes themselves," explains Giuseppe Bilardello, senior vice president of technology and research and development for KONE. "Comprised of a carbon fiber core, KONE UltraRope is extremely light—meaning elevator energy consumption in high-rise buildings can be cut significantly. It’s extremely strong and highly resistant to wear and abrasion. Elevator downtime caused by building sway is also reduced, as carbon fiber resonates at a completely different frequency to steel and most other building materials."
Traditionally, the elevators you trust to move you from the lobby to your office are hoisted by steel ropes, which must be lubricated frequently, and replaced at least every seven to 10 years. Because these ropes are exceedingly heavy, they can only be used to shuttle an elevator 500 meters. This limits the ease of traveling around high-rise buildings and heavily influences their maximum height; in fact, there are currently only three buildings in the world that top 500 meters. But the reduced weight of UltraRope makes one-kilometer vertical trips a breeze: For an elevator that covers 500 meters in travel height, UltraRope provides a 60% decrease in moving mass and a 15% decrease in energy consumption. Those benefits tick upward as builders add stories.
For KONE—which specializes in what they call "people flow" solutions, such as elevators, escalators, and those moving walkways that propel you through airports—UltraRope is a solution nine years in the making. "The initial innovative idea came in 2004, after which prototypes were created, and the actual R&D project began in 2008," Bilardello says. "We wanted to find ways of reducing the weight of the ropes and started looking at alternative materials. We benchmarked solutions from other industries and came across carbon fiber technology, which has already been used to reduce weight in industries such as aviation, automotive, textiles, and even oil and gas."
They started testing the product in 2010, using the company’s reliability lab and testing towers. And Lift Instituut, a Netherlands-based body authorized to test for the U.S. and EU markets, carried out third-party validation. The analysis focused on the lifetime, environmental effects, friction properties, and how it behaves at various temperatures.
The work paid off. Even before the product made it into a single customer's elevator shaft, it was hailed as groundbreaking. In July, KONE received the Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat's (CTBUH) 2013 Innovation Award for UltraRope. "This is finally a breakthrough on one of the 'holy grail' limiting factors of tall buildings—that is, the height to which a single elevator could operate before the weight of the steel rope becomes unsupportable over that height," Antony Wood, executive director of CTBUH, said in a press release. "So it is not an exaggeration to say that this is revolutionary. However, it is not just the enablement of greater height that is beneficial—the greater energy and material efficiencies are of equal value."
Earlier this month, UltraZone was installed in its first consumer building, Tower Three of the Marina Bay Sands, a luxury resort in Singapore. It replaces a traditional elevator system that employed steel ropes.
KONE hopes their product will revolutionize not just elevators, but the way buildings are designed. "The use of UltraRope in designing new buildings—specifically the ultra tall ones—will allow totally different thinking. Having elevators capable of running from the ground floor to the top will provide the possibility for different building zoning and lobby layouts that use spaces more efficiently," says Bilardello.
Sometimes, it's the smallest things that change the course of history.