The Boring Company: The Snail-Paced Tunneling Frontier

Analyzing the Potential and Practicality of Revolutionizing Humanity’s Ability to Tunnel.

The ‘Test Tunnel’ in Hawthorne, CA is the proof of concept tunnel for The Boring Company. Source.

Our transportation system is fundementally FLAWED. We rely on a two-dimensional road system to satisfy our entire transit demands. It’s crazy that commuters, mailmen, delivery trucks, and taxis all share the same road system even though they use it for different needs.

Instead of relying entirely on a road system, we can use tunnels to create a three-dimensional infrastructure network to satisfy the independent needs of all road users as well as other infrastructure demands.

Before we take a look at the applications of a revolutionized tunnel system, let’s first take a look at what is being done to overhaul the tunnel boring industry.

The Boring Company, founded by Elon Musk, aims to revolutionize the tunnel boring industry by speeding up the digging process and cutting costs dramatically. Currently, the tunnel boring process is 14x slower than a snail and costs $1-billion per mile, which creates a barrier in scaling the tunnel industry. Musk hopes that with a lower cost in entry, new uses of tunnels can be implemented and add a third dimension to infrastructure systems.

How Tunnel Boring Works Today

Currently, tunnel boring machines (TBM) are used worldwide for large scale transportation infrastructure projects such as subways or highways. They consist of a cutter head at the front of the machine, followed by a series of trailers that facilitate the operation of digging.

Overall the TBM has a diameter ranging from 24ft upwards to 50ft, and can reach over 100m long. On average, a TBM can cover 90m - 150m a week (compared to 1700m a week for a snail), and are able to work around the clock. A TBM cycles between two phases as it progresses, the tunneling phase and the ring building phase.

This TBM used in the London Crossrail project shows it’s cross-section and interior components. Notably, the blue component on the far left is the cutter head at the front of the TBM. Source.

Tunneling Phase

As per the name, this phase is the component of boring that consists of digging the tunnel. Hydraulic presses push the cutter head forwards into the hole, and rotational force is applied to cut up the material in front to make a path.

The TBM must move slowly, otherwise the structural integrity of the newly dug tunnel may not be stable. To ensure the stability of the tunnel face, material that has been dug from the ground is used to reinforce the tunnel, and is then removed.

Ring Building Phase

The second component of tunnel boring ensures the long term structural integrity of the tunnel. During this phase, the digging stops to allow the ring construction to occur.

The rings are constructed by placing several curved concrete pieces in a circular shape so that they lock into place and do not shift. Similar to an arch bridge, the pieces on the top of the ring can not fall down because they are being pushed on opposite sides by the adjacent pieces.

The use of arches in infrastructure are utilized so greatly since they are self supporting and can last for centuries. Source.

How the ring construction works:

  • Concrete ring segments are constructed and sent into the TBM
  • The segments are fed into a machine that lifts and orients the pieces one at a time
  • Hydraulic presses that secure the preexisting rings are selectively retracted to allow the ring segments to be placed
  • The last piece dubbed the ‘key stone’ is placed, locking all the segments of the completed ring
  • The completed ring is then bolted to ensure there is no shifting over long periods of time

The Boring Company Approach

Elon Musk is a big believer in tackling problems from their root causes and working up from that baseline. The two current issues with tunnel boring is the time and the cost, which Musk strives to reduce dramatically.

The Boring Company’s TBM is substantially smaller than most machines, but Musk is working to make it significantly more efficient than the others. Source.

There are two main pillars to The Boring Company’s approach, as well as other details that contribute to their overall vision and success. Firstly, they want to decrease the tunnel diameter by half (from on average 28ft to 14ft) which will decrease costs and increase efficiency by four times (since the diameter is half, the area is now a fourth of the size). Secondly, Musk hopes to develop a system that allows for both the tunneling phase as well as the ring building phase to occur simultaneously. This means the TBM can dig continuously.

These two pillars alone would be enough to distrupt the tunnel boring industry; however, Musk’s goal is to be faster than a snail, so other additions are also being made to meet his objective.

These additional ideas include:

  • Increasing the power of the TBM
  • Automating the entire tunnel boring process
  • Improving efficiency by going electric
  • Increasing research and development funding

Overall, Musk hopes this overhaul of the tunnel boring industry will allow for wide-spread implementation and scalability.

New Layers of Opportunity

To understand the applications of a modernized tunnel boring industry, we must think beyond just the traditional uses of tunnels that are currently used. Generally, the two major applications for tunnels are for subway systems, and to go through obstacles rather than around or over them (such as mountains).

Current tunnel uses only scratch the surface of the applications a wide-spread implementation could bring forward. An overhaul of entire infrastructure networks would be possible, which would allow for increased efficiency and safety. The best part of all, tunnel boring would not interfere with pre-existing infrastructure, so there would be no traffic impediments while constructing tunnels.

Adding Layers to Current Transportation

The entire appeal of tunnels is their ability to integrate layers into transportation systems. Current road systems are two-dimensional, and have no room for expanding without massively disrupting the surrounding area. This means that there is very little room for expanding the current system. With tunnels, there is a practically infinite amount of three-dimensional space that can be used to meet infrastructure needs underneath the ground.

Imagine a multi-layered underground network of tunnels that cars and cargo can travel through without traffic at high speeds. Using autonomous cars, vehicles can self regulate and travel at highway speeds with no risk of human error. This would maximize traffic flows as traffic would be taken off the roads, and move as quickly as possible.

Underground Utilities

Tunnels do not need to exclusively need to be for transportation, but also for other infrastructure systems. Tunnels can be used as a utility hub to hold water mains, gas lines, fiber-optic cables and other systems in one place.

This tunnel holds a water main as well as fiber-optic cables which allows for easier accessibility to these utilities underground. Source.

This allows for easier access to maintain these systems, as a technician can preform tasks in the tunnel rather than having to dig up land to reach a potential problem.

The up front cost would be very large, but to ensure a sustainable infrastructure system, tunneling would allow for long term reliance of utilities.

Key Takeaways

  • Current tunnel boring systems are slow since they are large, and have two separate phases that can only work one at a time
  • Elon Musk created The Boring Company to tackle the costs and inefficiencies of tunnel boring
  • Tunnels will be able to add new layers to transportation that road systems would not be able to incorporate
  • Tunnels would be able to speed up traffic flows and create more sustainable utility networks for the long term

I'm an innovation and business enthusiast who seeks to solve global problems through the application of emerging technologies.

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