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Tunnel boring competition: Hirschauer student meets Elon Musk

The challenge: to develop and build a tunnel boring machine that moves faster than a Roman snail. That means traveling more than three meters per hour. Sounds ambitious when you consider that current tunnel boring machines can do around one and a half meters an hour (albeit under different conditions). The specifications are hardly surprising if you know who initiated the competition: Entrepreneur Elon Musk, who is primarily associated with the companies Tesla and SpaceX.

But he also founded "The Boring Company", which specializes in tunnel construction. A play on words, because it can be translated as "the boring company" as well as "the boring company". The vision that Musk is pursuing is anything but boring. The South African plans to use electrically powered shuttles that can carry up to 16 passengers at the same time. The shuttles are to be built by Tesla and reach speeds of up to 240 km / h.

To advance the project, Musk launched the tunnel boring competition. Something that immediately appealed to Christian Wender from Hirschau, because he is enthusiastic about all kinds of mobility. The 21-year-old is currently studying mobile computer science in his sixth semester at the DHBW (Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University) Ravensburg Campus Friedrichshafen. During the semester break, Wender works for the aircraft manufacturer Airbus - in Munich, Bremen and Toulouse. He had several flying lessons and learned how to fly a small airplane. Finally, another student contacted Hirschauer and asked whether he would like to develop and build a tunnel drill in a team called "Dirt Torpedo". The 21-year-old immediately accepted. Wender: "Without Corona, the team would probably not have come about in this constellation, as we are spread across Germany. Corona has shown how well you can also work together digitally - that was ultimately also decisive that I was able to support the team without further ado . "

Quarter of a million euros in costs

The result was a three-meter-long tunnel drill, 60 centimeters in diameter and around a tonne, which moves like a worm - and faster than a Roman snail. The excavated rubble is sucked off directly. Using a laser navigation system, the students can "presumably control the drill very precisely", according to Wender in the "centimeter or millimeter range". While the drill is working, the tunnel is lined with special concrete that "hardens extremely quickly and is made by a sponsor". Speaking of sponsors: Without them, the project would not be possible, after all, the costs now amount to a quarter of a million euros.

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The next challenge for the team will be to pack the tunnel drill in boxes and ship it to the States for the competition at the end of June or beginning of July (if it is possible due to Corona). Then everything has to be reassembled. After all, a 30-meter-long tunnel has to be bored in the Mojave Desert - and, as I said, faster than a Roman snail. According to current tests and simulations, the drill is currently at least twice as fast as the auger, i.e. four times as fast as previous tunnel boring machines, which of course is also due to the sandy-loamy soil, says Wender. You don't have to fight your way through rock faces, and the diameters are also smaller than with conventional tunnel bores.

While the Wender team is working with a drill head, others try laser or water. The competition is well-known. The Technical University of Munich (the second German finalist) is there with a team of 60 as well as a troop from the renowned MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and the ETH (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) Zurich. How successful the Wender team can be becomes clear when he explains: "We had no idea about tunnel boring machines. Everyone has a basic understanding, but we first started reading books about civil engineering. Everyone was familiar with incorporated his subject. " The Hirschauer is responsible for project management (logistics, sponsoring, organizational matters) and as a computer scientist for the development of the laser navigation system. "Almost another full-time job," says Wender.

CV at Elon Musk Company

Elon Musk is known for wisely marketing, if not hype, its products. Ultimately, miniature Teslas should drive through the tunnels of the twelve teams - as the ultimate endurance test, so to speak. A major media event for which the Hirschauer has already formulated goals: "We want to show that we can keep up with world-renowned universities or even beat them. We also want to exchange a photo with Elon Musk and a few words with him."

Whatever the outcome of the competition, Wender has already won. Participation in the final should look good on his already impressive résumé. Thanks to his Abitur at the Erasmus-Gymnasium in Amberg, the 21-year-old speaks German, English, Italian (all fluent) as well as Greek and Latin. In the summer he would like to learn French or Spanish - and then start the dual master's degree in "Robotics, Cognition, Intelligence" at the Technical University of Munich. After he is currently working at Airbus, his master’s degree will go to Audi. "During my semester break, I am allowed to work at Audi / VW and all of its subsidiaries such as Porsche and Lamborghini around the world. During this time, I definitely want to go to Silicon Valley for an internship, as it is the world's high-tech location for me I can also see the inside of MIT during the semester abroad. " In short: the 21-year-old is already well positioned in the area of ​​mobility and is expanding his experience even further. Better still, the finalists in the competition are asked to send a résumé to Elon Musk's US aerospace and telecommunications company SpaceX. Career prospects that could, in the truest sense of the word, lead the 21-year-old Hirschauer high up.

The competition

  • Proclaimed by "The Boring Company"
  • Competition location: Mojave Desert, California near Las Vegas
  • Objective: To drill a tunnel drill faster than an auger (three meters per hour), a 30-meter-long tunnel with a half-meter diameter
  • Participants: 12 teams of finalists (from around 400 teams at the beginning)
  • Wender team: First two competition phases (working out preliminary concept and final design) since autumn 2020; Find out about the final at the end of January
  • Competition period: end of June, beginning of July
  • Finalists hold advisor meetings every two weeks with staff from The Boring Company and SpaceX
Christian Wender with components of the tunnel boring machine.
Image: Wolfgang Steinbacher
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