How do you get several hundred smart people around the world to work on solving a vexing problem for your business?
If you’re Elon Musk, you put up a web page and announce a competition.
That’s what The Boring Company, a privately held Musk tunnel-digging venture headquartered near Los Angeles, did last July. The competition attracted 400 entries. When the 12 finalists — the Digging Dozen — were announced earlier this year, they included a team from MIT.
The goal may call to mind that old song about John Henry, the steel-drivin’ man, and a steam-powered drill: Digging tunnels faster. No prize for the competition has been announced, and the date has been pushed back from spring into the summer (possibly). But the competition does have a mascot: Gary the Snail, from the kid’s TV show “SpongeBob SquarePants.” Today’s tunnel-digging machines still move much more slowly than a snail, and The Boring Company wants to catch up. It envisions intra-city and long-distance tunnels being used for passenger cars, freight, high-speed “pod” trains, and as utility conduits.
The Digging Dozen includes groups of hobbyists, as well as university teams from the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, and the US. (Team names include “Biggus Diggus” and “The Diggeridoos.”) They’ll face off in the Mojave Desert to dig a tunnel that will be about one-third the length of a football field, and just shy of two footballs wide — 20 inches. Three winners will be chosen: the team that digs the fastest, the team that has the most accurate guidance system (tunneling machines have a tendency to drift off-target as they drill), and the fastest team to build both a tunnel and a road surface.
What would you drive through a 20-inch wide tunnel? A remote-controlled Tesla, of course.
The MIT team that made it to the finals has about 28 members, including doctoral students, business school students, and some outside professionals — ringers, perhaps? Over the course of an in-person interview, a Zoom interview, and a lengthy e-mail exchange, they were tight-lipped about their design approach. “Teams keep their designs secret because they want to win,” explained Michael Forsuelo, who helped draft the team’s initial proposal for the competition, and is pursuing a PhD in chemical engineering at MIT.
But Jordan Beer, a welder and fabricator on the team, said their design approach may rely on multiple smaller machines working on the same tunnel, rather than one big drill. (The Boring Company uses the single mongo drill approach, relying on a 12-foot wide machine it has dubbed Prufrock.) “We’re trying to remove the bottleneck of production that you get by just putting one massive machine into the ground and having it go the speed of the snail,” Beer said. “If you could remove that bottleneck and have 50 different crews working at once,” with the same machine and the same standardized process, Beer suggests you’d be able to burrow much more quickly.
“This is a really big dragon to slay, so we’re choosing a thousand tiny needles versus one big sword,” added Rion Motley, another team member. “It may seem ridiculous to the dragon, but at the end of it, he’s just as dead.” Motley is managing partner of Virginia engineering firm WetSpark Innovations.
The team may also try a drill that grinds away at the earth with a high-temperature plasma torch to burn off some of the harder stuff that stands in its way — like rock, according to Paul Woskov, an adviser to the team and a semi-retired researcher at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center.
Using high temperature to break rock is “an approach that’s well known through the millennia,” Woskov said. “In Roman times, people used to build fires against hard crystal and rock,” then throw vinegar on it to fracture it. Plasma torches ignite a pressurized gas with electricity, creating very high temperatures.
“It’s a good approach,” he said, “but the details are going to be difficult. At 1,000 degrees Celsius, the mechanical tools are in danger of being damaged themselves.” In other words, high temperatures could melt not only rocks in front of the drill, but the drill itself. The MIT team working on The Boring Company’s competition doesn’t have much budget or much time, Woskov observed. “They’ll probably learn a lot, and maybe they’ll luck out on something, but I’m very skeptical there will be a breakthrough,” he said.
The MIT team hopes it develops some new technology or approach that could be part of a future startup company or be licensed to existing companies.
The team has been having twice-weekly Zoom meetings to advance the design of its tunneling machine. But Motley said that trying to assemble and refine a physical thing without being together in person over the winter and into the spring has been “a real struggle. I don’t know how any of the other teams are doing it.”
Earlier in May, two team members, plus a few employees of an unnamed company that is sponsoring the MIT team, got together in a parking lot in Hampton, Va., where Motley’s business is based. “In 30 minutes, with physical hardware in our hands, we got through two weeks of questions,” he said. “I’ve always been very hands-on, so it was great to go back to that.”
Beer recently moved from New Hampshire, where he worked over the winter at a ski resort, to the Cleveland area. The sponsor has a facility there with a fabricating shop that the team can use. There’s also plenty of open space for testing out working prototypes, and seeing what happens when they encounter dirt, rock, and roots. “It’s really tough at MIT’s campus to drill a hole,” he said.
The team hopes to find out soon when it will be expected to get its machine to the Mojave Desert to face off against the other 11 teams. In May and June, they’ll be moving fast — certainly faster than Gary the Snail.
“Our basic assumption,” Motley said, “is that if we don’t have something ready to rock and roll by July, we’re in trouble.”
Scott Kirsner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.