December 17, 2016

Elon Musk talking about making a tunneling company to fix traffic

Elon Musk has tweeted about starting a company that will make tunneling equipment and dig tunnels that will relieve traffic.

Elon Musk has started two transportation related companies Tesla for electric cars and Spacex for launching into space. He has also initiated the development of Hyperloop and believes that supersonic electric planes would be successful.

New technology has dramatically reduced the cost—and disruption—of building tunnels under busy cities for rail, road and utility projects. Engineers in recent decades have developed mechanized and automated systems to chew through deep rock or muck and immediately line an excavation to prevent collapse—all without disturbing the busy city above. That means projects that once would have taken armies of men years to dig now can advance in a fraction of the time and at much lower cost.

There is more innovation to be had and massive economic benefit to improving the ability to dig tunnels for transportation and for mining.

Arguing against the creation of another company for Elon Musk is that he has said that he does not have the time to start another company. He believes in Hyperloop and created detailed plans for nearly supersonic trainlike transportation. He then allowed others to create it.

Elon has indicated that his board and stockholders want him to focus on Spacex and Tesla. Solar City was combined into Tesla and Elon had previously left it to others to Solarcity.

Confirming if Elon is serious will need to see the actual introduction of a corporation and technology.

The number of tunnel-boring machines, or TBMs, in operation has surged since 2000. Herrenknecht AG, one of the world’s biggest TBM makers, says it is providing machines for as many as 100 projects annually, up from as many as 20 some 15 years ago.

“The ability to deliver a tunnel on time and on budget has changed a lot…and really pushed the industry,” says Achim Kühn, a spokesman for the privately held German company, whose tunnel-boring machines can cost more than $50 million each.

The MTA recently had to manually dig a particularly difficult 120-foot tunnel at a cost of almost $1 million per foot. By contrast, tunneling 3 miles under Second Avenue with giant machines cost about $19,000 per foot, he says.

Plasma digging technology could be combined with boring machines

Zaptec has a new plasma drilling technology which could achieve practical, affordable, and reliable deep drilling on the Moon, asteroids, Mars, and its moons. The drilling system comprises a freely advancing drill head tethered by a power cable to a power source topside and high voltage generator downhole. The drill advances by generating a high-energy density plasma at the drill head which breaks down and pulverizes the target rock. A key enabling technology is the system’s ability to deliver high energy plasma discharges via low mass, small volume power transformers located in the
drill head section. Powder cuttings may be removed by circulating compressed CO2.

Zaptec on the Moon

On the Moon, the subsurface in the polar regions may be a repository of volatiles of value to science and as a potential resource for future human exploration. A Zaptec drill could be deployed on a future robotic lunar lander mission, such as Moon Express, or in the context of human missions. The fine dust from drilling goes through the unit, is analysed, and then sprayed into a dust exhaust in contact with the surface vacuum. An alternative scenario is to expand the module with a processing unit which sorts out minerals from H2O/CO2 ice. The mineral dust can then be used as raw materials for local manufacturing.

Zaptec on Asteroids, the Moons of Mars, and Other Rocky Small Bodies

On asteroids, the subsurface may yield pristine asteroidal materials and potential resources for human exploration as well. The moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, are expected to present similar opportunities. Because the Zaptec approach does not require weight on bit, it is able to effectively drill into any rocky small body in microgravity. The Zaptec system is anticipated to reach 50 to 100 meter depths with less than 250 kg of gear topside and 1 kW of peak power.

Zaptec on Mars

On Mars, the subsurface might hold records of potential past life on Mars that might be better preserved than at the surface of Mars itself. The search for biosignatures and life on Mars is guided by NASA’s Follow the Water strategy. The H2O ice-rich subsurface on Mars likely transitions to liquid H2O-rich aquifers at greater depth, which might offer habitats for potential extant life on Mars.

The depth to liquid aquifers on Mars is estimated to range from a few tens of meters (if briny solutions are involved and/or in potentially active volcanic areas presenting elevated geothermal gradients) to a few kilometers. Hoftun et al. (2014) summarize deep drilling rationales and challenges on Mars, and suggest that liquid aquifers might be reached at depths of less than 1 to 2 km beneath the floor of Valles Marineris and in recently active volcanic provinces.

On Mars, the proposed Zaptec system will allow a depth of 2 km to be reached with less than 1 metric ton of surface payload housed in a SpaceX Dragon-sized capsule and peak power requirements of less than 2 kW.

Zaptec deep drilling system capable of reaching a depth of 2 km, deployed from a SpaceX Dragon-class landed capsule. Astronaut shown for scale (Image Credit: Zaptec). Right: An important goal of deep drilling on Mars will be to reach potential underground aquifers to search for any extant life. Image credit: Mars Institute. (Image Credit: Mars Institute. Background diagram: ESA).

Next Steps

The lightweight, energy-efficient Zaptec drilling concept, which is based on plasma channel drilling/electropulse, offers a promising and universal approach to planetary and small body drilling. The concept will continue to mature with laboratory and field tests over the next years.

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