Campus - 18.06.2024 - 13:15 

Swissloop Tunneling seeks to revolutionise tunnel construction

The ‘Swissloop Tunneling’ association, founded by ETH students, is developing a micro-tunnelling machine in collaboration with HSG students. At the end of March, they won the renowned ‘Not-a-Boring Competition’, which is organised annually by Elon Musk's The Boring Company.
The "Swissloop Tunnelling" team presenting their tunnelling solution at the competition in Texas.

Almost three years ago, two students from ETH and HSG were guests on the HSG Student Podcast. At the time, they presented a new project called Swissloop Tunneling. The student association was founded at ETH in 2020 and has been researching new solutions in the tunnelling industry ever since.  

Just one year after its foundation, the first tunnelling machine ‘Groundhog Alpha’ was built. It is named after the best tunneller in the world, the groundhog. Compared to conventional tunnelling machines, Groundhog Alpha has the advantage that it is able to 3D print the inner wall of the tunnel without interrupting the drilling process. This saves time and is therefore more cost-effective.

First place in competition organised by Elon Musk's The Boring Company

Swissloop Tunneling proved how well their concept works in a competition organised by Elon Musk's The Boring Company. Out of hundreds of applicants, the eight best were invited to Texas to present their tunnelling solutions. Swissloop Tunneling took first place. One of the most important criteria of the competition was the speed with which tunnelling was carried out. ‘Beat the snail’ was The Boring Company's slogan for the competition. 

But how fast does the machine actually drill? “In theory, the machine drills around 30 metres in eight hours. That sounds slow at first, but in relation to tunnelling, it's actually very fast,” says Manuel Richarz, HSG student and member of Swissloop Tunneling. Only three years later, the Swissloop Tunneling association has over 40 members and 100 students have become involved.

Opportunity for HSG students to gain practical experience

In addition to the Engineering Division, which is responsible for the technical aspect and is the largest department, there is also the Business Division, in which HSG students are involved. “For students of the University of St.Gallen, the project is a unique opportunity to gain practical experience in a technical environment and take on responsibility,” says Christoph Ott, media representative of Swissloop Tunnelling and former HSG student. 

The HSG students are primarily responsible for the areas of Fundraising & Partnerships and Public Relations. "We approach public media, but above all industry-specific magazines such as the Tunneling Journal. 

“It's about being publicly recognised and staying in touch,” says Ott. The HSG students are also responsible for the association's social media channels and website.

Another important area is relations with partners. “As we are a research association, the whole thing is very expensive,” says Head of Fundraising & Partnerships, Manuel Richarz. "That's why it's our job to forge partnerships with companies from a wide range of industries that support us with funding or components and expertise."

In return, partners are in dialogue with ambitious engineers or business administration specialists, which can later also help them to attract new talent. The association's involvement is also interesting in terms of marketing. “It is very attractive for our partners to see their names on Elon Musk's social media posts after the competition, which have several million views,” says Richarz.

Vision for the future and origin of the name

The association does not want to rest on its laurels after the competition. The goal for the near future is to make tunnelling faster, cheaper and more sustainable. Over the next few years, the first step will be to make the liner mechanism marketable. This makes it possible to line the tunnel wall without interrupting the drilling process.

In addition, the diameter of the machine is to be increased. The latest version of the Groundhog Beta micro-tunnelling machine is still a prototype that drills with a diameter of 0.6 metres. By way of comparison, the diameter of the tunnel boring machine used to build the second Gotthard tunnel was 12.26 metres. 

If the machine can be scaled up successfully, Swissloop Tunnelling could also advance ambitious concepts such as Hyperloop in the future. “Hyperloop is a futuristic transport concept that could transport goods and people in underground tubes at speeds of up to 1000 kilometres per hour. ‘However, it may be several decades before this is possible,” says Ott.

Incidentally, the name Swissloop comes from a team that took part in earlier competitions organised by Elon Musk's space travel company ‘SpaceX’. Back then, students from all over the world designed so-called pods, the transport vehicles for the hyperloop. When Musk announced a tunnelling competition, four former team members founded a new association, and Swissloop Tunneling was born. 

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