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Now, where's that sticky-back plastic?

Gladiators and Blue Peter have been bizarrely fused and reborn into an apocalyptic metal landscape. Welcome to Scrapheap - a new six part programme whose stars include a young civil engineer from Ove Arup.

The Channel 4 series, to be broadcast this autumn, is a Mad Max inspired contest between two rag-bag teams. In each of six episodes they tackle a fresh challenge - to make from scrap, in under 10 hours, a cabbage-launching catapult, a boat, an all-terrain buggy, a tractor, a 2m tall payload dispatching rocket, and a diving bell.

Salvaging junk to make crazy looking but functional machines sounds eminently green. However, team member and civil engineer Shen Chiu of Ove Arup says the programmes' scrap yard was carefully designed. 'On what real junk pile would you find a working V8 engine or tractor drive?' he asks. 'You'd have real problems finding everything you need to do what we did in the time we had.'

And contestants were happily profligate with materials. Oil drums were drained and cut apart for tiny snippets of sheet metal. Machines were cannibalised for nuts and washers.

Scrapheap drafted in experts to help assemble the designer scrap yard. 'Optimum' components were carefully incorporated into the rusting set; debriefing revealed hopes that by locating them, teams would have found 'perfect solutions'. Chiu comments that

under time pressure and team-working initially with total strangers, outcomes were often not ideal.

The programmes tested the teams' creativity and resourcefulness - not to mention resources - to the limits, he says. 'I'd never really thought about how a rocket works: about how its payload detaches,' confesses Chiu. Many of the projects placed a heavy emphasis on mechanical engineering and fabrication, forcing him to rapidly learn new skills. And the physical exertion took a heavy toll on bodies more used to sitting with a keyboard or stretching to an occasional game of squash. Chiu's civils background kicked in on projects like the catapult, though, where analysis of leverage and structural bracing helped produce a winner.

Chiu compares the tasks themselves to lateral thinking tests he encountered as a child - make a car using an elastic band and cotton reels, or making a bridge out of spaghetti. They required a combination of skills: the ability to ignore conventional ways of doing things; analysis and interpretation of facts; fast decision making; and not least common sense.

Scrapheap 'is one of the highlights of anything I've ever done', Chiu enthuses. Even before the first series has been broadcast he is hoping there will be a sequel. However, if the series really is adrenaline-pumpingly exciting as promised, civil engineers across the country look set to become dangerously enthused. Please note, Scrapheap's contraptions look lethal. Do not try this at home!

Scrapheap is showing at 6.30pm on Channel 4 from Sunday 13 September.

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