Specialty oils and greases were the first to welcome the "groundhog"

Swissloop Tunneling, a team from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich won two prizes at a time with its tunnel boring machine at the "Not-a-Boring Competition" in Las Vegas. The team and Klüber Lubrication have one thing in common: the pursuit of promising solutions. That is why employees of the special lubricant manufacturer in Switzerland and the USA have supported the 36 students in many ways. Luca Entremont, production manager of the team, discusses how this sponsorship contributed to their success.

A year of pondering, fiddling, building and testing has paid off. A team from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich won two prizes at a time with its tunnel boring machine at the "Not-a-Boring Competition" in Las Vegas: second place and the Design & Innovation Award in the competition organised by Elon Musk! With their "Groundhog Alpha", the 36 students made a resourceful contribution to making the entrepreneur's vision of underground whizzing transport capsules a reality - with a possible drilling speed of about one centimetre per second.

The Swissloop Tunneling team and Klüber Lubrication have one thing in common: the pursuit of promising solutions. That is why employees of the special lubricant manufacturer in Switzerland and the USA have supported the 36 students from ETH Zurich and HSG in many ways. Luca Entremont, production manager of the team, discusses how this sponsorship was received by the young people and what it contributed to their success.

A second place and an award! It could hardly be better. That certainly makes you forget some of the exertions and the difficult conditions due to Corona, doesn't it?

Yes, we are happy that it went so well and that our unconventional drilling technology was explicitly appreciated. Instead of pipe jacking, where a pipe is rammed into the ground and then the soil is extracted above it, we developed a new system from scratch. The drilling machine works its way forward by pushing off against a tunnel lining applied by polymer 3D printing as the unit moves ahead. Our solution allows the drilling machine to advance continuously. It was really great to work together on such a big project and inspiring to see what the other international teams were doing. But it was also quite a challenge.

How so?

We had hardly any information about what exactly would await us at the venue - for example, what the ground would be like or what tools we would have at our disposal to get our drill to the start. Unpacking all the equipment, setting up tents, securing the supply of electricity, water and compressed air ... there were many a situation that made us sweat, and not just because of the heat. It's good that everything went just perfectly with the lubricants. The gear and hydraulic oils and the rolling bearing grease from Klüber Lubrication were already at the site when we arrived.

What is unusual about that?

Of course, we had already tested these products in Switzerland. But they had to be removed for the transport of our drilling machine. Our contacts at Klüber Lubrication in Switzerland had agreed with their colleagues in the USA that they would supply us with the products directly. This also relieved us of all the paperwork for import and compliance. An American employee of our sponsor was even with us on the day of the competition. The international support was the icing on the cake of Klüber Lubrication's all-round carefree package, which of course also included months of support on all tribological issues - at all times. Our sponsor even coordinated with our ball bearing supplier to ensure that the product matched the bearings exactly.

How much did the Swissloop Tunneling team know about tribology before the cooperation with Klüber Lubrication?

Of course, some lectures at ETH Zurich go into the science of friction and wear. But what benefited the project most was our sponsor's experience with the challenges of countless real-life applications. Without him, we would probably have picked a standard lubricant and thus accepted a large loss of efficiency under the extreme requirements in Las Vegas.

What were these requirements?

Sand, for example. In addition, the lubricant must be compatible with the seal and the gear head must be protected in such a way that it can withstand the constant blows and rockfall. The drill head of our "Groundhog Alpha" pushes through the ground at 27 revolutions per minute. The driving force is 200 kilonewtons. Supposedly, these parameters entail a whole set of different requirements that have to be met by the lubricant. We have learned such things from our sponsor in the many discussions, but we are far from being able to draw appropriate conclusions for a suitable lubricant ourselves.

Maybe you don't need to do that at all. Can you imagine further cooperation with Klüber Lubrication?

For its part, the company has already expressed interest. It values working with young, creative and motivated people and is very interested in solutions for promising technologies. We will now wait for the return of our "groundhog" and reorganise ourselves as a team. In general, we are open to new things. No matter what project we tackle next: It will certainly help us to have reliable partners like Klüber Lubrication.

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