Microtunneling or microtunnelling is a digging technique used to construct small tunnels. These small diameter tunnels make it impossible to have an operator driving the machine itself. Instead, the microtunnel boring machine (MTBM) has to be operated remotely from a control room.

Microtunnel boring machines are very similar to normal tunnel boring machines (TBMs), but on a smaller scale. These machines generally vary from 0.61 to 1.5 meters (2 ft 0 in to 4 ft 11 in) but smaller and larger machines have existed. Usually, the operator controls the machine from a control room on the surface. The Microtunneling machine and jacking frame are set up in a shaft at the required depth. The operator is given constant feedback about the machine’s location, orientation and hydraulic devices via a computer console or CCTV camera. Most machines also have video cameras set up to enable the operator to monitor activities in the jacking shaft and at the separation plant. The operator controls the MTBM and the jacking frame from the safety of the control room which is usually situated on the surface, next to the jacking shaft.

In most microtunneling operations the machine is launched through an entry eye and pipes are pushed behind the machine. This is a process often called pipe jacking and is repeated until the Microtunneling machine reaches the reception shaft. As the machine advances, more tunnel liner or pipe is pushed from the starting shaft, through the entry eye. Thus, the speed of the advancing machine is controlled by the speed at which the pipe is inserted into the entry eye via the extension of the hydraulic rams in the jacking frame.

As the length of tunnel increases, the friction of the ground around the pipe increases as well. Usually, two practices are used to minimize this friction. First, over-cutting is used to give a slight gap between the inner edge of the tunnel and the outer edge of the liner. Usually this is achieved by using a cutter wheel with a diameter ½ inch (12mm) to 4 inches (100mm) larger than the outside diameter of the liner. Secondly, a lubricant, often bentonite slurry, is injected into this gap. In addition to lubrication, the pressure of the lubricant prevents the gap from collapsing.

While friction can be reduced, it can never be eliminated, and sometimes hundreds of tons of force are required to push the machine and liner into the ground. A large “jacking frame” containing hydraulic rams is required to produce these forces. In most cases the entrance must be modified to support this frame and the forces it generates.

In addition to the jacking frame, smaller jacks, called “interjacks”, may be inserted between sections of tunnel liner. These push the two sections of liner apart. Friction on the liner sections between the interjack and the tunnel entrance helps to prevent the liner from sliding out backwards. So while the liner behind the interjack does not move, those sections in front of it receive additional pushing force.

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