“We have a transportation problem today. People are seriously talking about flying cars in the future, why not build proper infrastructure downhill?

Businessman Elon Musk is known for entering new industries and making groundbreaking advances. When Tesla launched, it made quantum leaps in the automotive industry, and with his company Space X, he has proven how the cost of space travel can be reduced with revolutionary technology.

Now he plans to improve the technology of tunnel boring.

Almost every major city in the world has transport problems

“Today, we largely use transport routes on the ground floor, where everyone wants to travel to and from work on one level, at about the same time. It’s two-dimensional. Our homes and workplaces are built layer by layer upwards or downwards, why can’t we build transport routes like that too? asked Musk at a press conference for his latest major project.

The vision of Musk

What the tunnel system will be like

While many tech companies are working on flying cars, Elon Musk believes the solution is a network of tunnels rather than streets. The first test runs have already been carried out.

So he started The Boring Company, which he believes has major challenges ahead. If they are to make tunnel boring efficient and profitable, the current speed must increase tenfold. Furthermore, he explains how to solve it.

Snail as mascot

The world’s fastest tunnel boring machine today drills ten times slower than a snail. Musk has challenged the company to at least beat a snail, proudly showing off their mascot “Gary the snail”.

Gary the snail
The Boring Company’s mascot “Gary the snail”. The goal is to drill tunnels as fast as the snail moves: 10 times faster than conventional tunnel drilling.

He believes continuous drilling is one of the important codes to crack. Today, it takes the most time to insert segments with reinforcing supporting structures that prevent the tunnel from falling.

“Getting into these segments steals more time than the drilling itself. If we could do it at the same time, this point alone would triple the speed. This is a demanding factor, but we are already working on a solution that seems to be able to work,” he says.

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Using the world’s best aerospace engineers

“In the US, there is virtually no research and development on tunnel boring, everything happens in China or Japan. Fortunately, we can use the minds of several of the world’s most talented aerospace engineers working in Space X. Their first question was: why hasn’t anyone done this before?

Within the first week, the engineers who are used to working with the world’s most advanced technology had come up with solutions that streamlined operations.

One of them is as banal as a meeting point in the tunnel, such as we have used on narrow Norwegian national roads for decades.

Meeting point in tunnel
According to Elon Musk, some of the world’s most talented aerospace engineers will be able to crack the code on how to drill continuously, without stopping a single time.

“The second biggest challenge to drill quickly is to get the soil out, move it quickly from A to B. Until now, one train has been running back and forth on the same rail. Building two rails so trains can travel back and forth is bulky and expensive, so we created a simple bypass pocket,” he explains.

The next step was to speed up and cut costs on the operation of the trains. Here he obtains technology from Tesla.

Using motor and battery from Tesla

“We have to make all aspects of drilling electric. All other tunnels on the scale we drill use diesel trains, which is an incredibly bad idea as it releases dangerous and toxic fumes that are trapped in the tunnel.

He goes on to explain how time-consuming it is to lay out miles of high-voltage power lines. We will replace this with huge battery packs, which take battery technology from Tesla.

They have designed the world’s largest battery-powered electric train to transport out earth. It is powered by two Tesla motors and a battery pack. Over 1.1 tons of mass ripped by just two electric motors from a Tesla Model 3 and a battery pack,” he says with a smile.

Battery-powered electric train
Battery-powered electric train that transports loads during the drilling operation. It is powered by two motors and a battery pack from the Tesla Model 3.

“With diesel-powered trains, we were completely dependent on huge ventilation pipes, which take time to build and cost to operate. With battery-powered trains, it’s redundant,” he says, pausing. He seems to conclude before continuing:

“Battery-powered transport is the only logical solution.

Read more:
Is this the construction industry’s most underrated machine?

Casting concrete element at tunnel opening

He also highlights another great advance; to build load-bearing structure on the site. Using the soil they excavate, the company casts concrete elements right at the tunnel opening.

Illustration of concrete elements
Some of the concrete elements cast outside the entrance to the tunnel were presented to be shown to the press.

“This is an obvious thing to do, but we still haven’t seen a major construction project where this has been done. Typically, a construction company that casts at its factories miles from the tunnel also transports the elements to the site where they are to be used,” he says.

“It’s obviously more efficient to cast these elements right at the opening of the tunnel,” Musk said.

This also solves much of the problem around landfill. The masses that are not used directly in the tunnel must also be disposed of in a sensible way. They will be casting bricks, for that they have started another company.

Some of the advances of The Boring Company:

  • Triple the power of a conventional drill
  • Replacing worn segments of drill bit without stopping drilling
  • Battery-powered trains with overtaking pocket
  • Casting reinforcing concrete directly at tunnel opening
  • Casting bricks at tunnel opening sold

Sells bricks for less than NOK 1 each

The last of the companies in Musk’s portfolio takes the circular economy seriously. The company called The Brick Store will reuse the raw material from the tunnel. They will sell bricks that are produced by compacting the soil under high pressure, and at the same time add some concrete.

“It’s that simple, we make bricks that are classified and approved according to the seismic requirements of the earthquake-prone state of California. They can withstand 5,000 PSI pressures and are far stronger than a slag block, he claims.

The Brick Store plans to sell the bricks at 10 US cents each. At today’s rate, it is less than 1 krone per brick.

The Brick Store
A sketch of one of the areas where The Brick Store has applied for a permit for sale. Here they will sell bricks for less than NOK 1 each, cast with pulp from the tunnel.

Musk explains that 15-20% of the cost of tunnel boring is to get rid of the mass, and believes that they would have cut the broom drastically even if they had given away the bricks for free, but also points out that the ripple effects have an added value.

“To me, it makes no sense to throw away building raw materials, which can benefit the man in the street. With such cheap bricks, we can drive down the cost of building a house. It’s about looking at our projects in the context of other needs in society, not as an isolated construction project,” he says in an eager voice.

“Cutting time and costs in tunnel boring is about improving all the big and small details. We need to do that to reach our goal of providing public transportation at $1 per trip.”

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