Tunnel boring machines

A tunnel boring machine (TBM) also known as a “mole“, is a machine used to excavate tunnels with a circular cross section through a variety of soil and rock strata. They can bore through hard rock, sand, and almost anything in between. Tunnel diameters can range from a metre (done with micro-TBMs) to almost 16 metres to date. Tunnels of less than a metre or so in diameter are typically done using trenchless construction methods or horizontal directional drilling rather than TBMs.

Tunnel boring machines are used as an alternative to drilling and blasting (D&B) methods in rock and conventional ‘hand mining’ in soil. TBMs have the advantages of limiting the disturbance to the surrounding ground and producing a smooth tunnel wall. This significantly reduces the cost of lining the tunnel, and makes them suitable to use in heavily urbanized areas. The major disadvantage is the upfront cost. TBMs are expensive to construct, and can be difficult to transport. However, as modern tunnels become longer, the cost of tunnel boring machines versus drill and blast is actually less—this is because tunnelling with TBMs is much more efficient and results in a shorter project.

The largest diameter TBM, at 15.43 m, was built by Herrenknecht AG for a recent project in Shanghai, China. The machine was built to bore through soft ground including sand and clay. The largest diameter hard rock TBM, at 14.4 m, was manufactured by The Robbins Company for Canada’s Niagara Tunnel Project. The machine is currently boring a hydroelectric tunnel beneath Niagara Falls, the machine has been named “Big Becky” in reference to the Sir Adam Beck hydroelectric dams to which it is tunneling to provide an additional hydroelectric tunnel.