Three ways Normet Group is focused on championing sustainability in the underground tunnelling sector

The biggest change within the underground construction industry is the approach to cost-efficient carbon reduction, according to Ross Dimmock, Vice President of Tunnelling over at Normet Group. From his experience, businesses are thinking more seriously about climate goals for 2050, the Paris Accord, and cutting emissions. However, Ross poses the question: when is action going to be taken – how and when are we going to walk the talk?

Normet Group, the specialist in underground mining and tunnelling solutions, is doing everything possible to achieve robust sustainability for the industry. Through innovation, the company is looking closely at providing the tools to accelerate technology adoption. “We’re packaging a low-carbon tunnelling solution, which we hope will be quickly adopted by others, with the concept that saving carbon, saves cost.”

As the construction industry continues to adapt to the financial impacts of the war in Ukraine, the energy crisis and inflation, it seems the industry is finding ways to save costs to bring projects together at the best value. However, Normet Group is taking a unique approach. “We operate through three phases: the design phase, which we call build clever, the construction phase we call build efficiently, and finally, thinking about the future, a phase we call building for a lifetime.”

The first, build clever, involves tunnel design. “With the right technologies, we can cut probably between 30 and 40 percent of carbon and cost by using the correct materials to build a tunnel in the right configurations,” he shares.

The second step is the build efficiently phase. “You can’t do massive changes once we’ve laid out the design. However, there’s still plenty of scope to make lots of little efficiency improvements during construction, and we’ve seen another 20 percent in savings in this way.”

Tying in with the second phase, another way in which Normet Group’s strategy contributes positively to environmental efficiency is the transition to greener assets within the business. “We have battery electric vehicles. I’ve just bought an electric car, after driving diesel and petrol cars for 40 years. If you look at the growth of EVs in the domestic car market, you can see there is an appetite for change as the technology is viable. Interestingly, the mining industry has made greater steps forward in the use of electric assets, and environmentally friendly equipment that saves tons of carbon.”

Innovation and safety

The final part of Normet Group’s process is building for a lifetime. “We’re supporting the industry through our use of underground space for energy storage that supports local communities. There’s a real need for this because we will require more storage for all the renewables we will be using in the near future, and we haven’t been building anything of any significance over the last 30 years. However, now we have three schemes we are looking at in the UK to actually put these pumped hydro schemes in place to store energy.

“We formed an international network in Switzerland called the Subspace Energy Hub. It’s a brand-new organization, dedicated to really achieving carbon-zero construction in underground space, which is exciting. The hub is addressing topics like the fear contractors have around implementing battery electric vehicles because of the fire risks. We want to dispel those fears through a risk-based approach to show that they’re actually safer than diesel equivalents. We cannot bring any tunnelling equipment in that isn’t safe,” Ross expresses.

When Ross began tunnelling 35 years ago, the industry looked completely different. Throughout this time, he has made incremental changes to champion safer, faster, and more sustainably dependable sprayed concrete tunnelling. This change has taken shape through the introduction of technology, and upskilling engineers and operators. “If you consider where we are today, we now have half a million-euro robots that are operated with a joystick, and the guys running them are at the top of their game. We need to provide skilled tailor-made training packages for these guys so they can do their job well. This will power the industry forward when it comes to innovation and safety.”

Sustainable solutions

To improve skills, Normet Group is offering simulator training so that the team is prepared for any eventuality. “Our guys learn how to run the machinery and we have 3D simulators where they learn to spray concrete with a robot, for example. It’s very exciting, and all these little details bring down our carbon usage. If we have trained people, we can start doing construction smarter to get better control of what we are doing,” he expresses.

With this level of technology, the scale of the projects Normet Group supports is impressive. “We’re currently working on the Turin-Lyon High Speed Rail, which will connect France to Italy. We also have a number of projects in Norway that are far more forward-thinking in terms of delivering sustainable solutions. I think there is a strong incentivised push for full electrification and sustainable approaches supported by the Norwegian government.

“We have been involved in works like the Crossrail Elizabeth line, where we supplied the lion’s share of the sprayed concrete solutions. Thames Tideway was similar. We’re trying to help contractors by offering the whole solution. One of the ways we’ve done this is by teaming up with Cemex through a dry silo sprayed concrete system. We can install these silos on any site, and they allow high quality spray concrete mix to be produced at the push of a button. It’s neat and tidy for a lot of tunnelling contractors, with less waste, less carbon, and ultimately less cost,” Ross shares.

Aspiration to implementation

The company is also currently working on HS2 on the Euston patch through London. “We hope to do the same on the northern section near Birmingham as well. We won the concrete supplier work with Cemex too for the new pumped hydro scheme in Scotland, and we were able to successfully install the first electric robotic sprayer in the UK for that contract,” says Ross.

Ross’s insight provides hope for the future of the tunnelling sector, as well as Normet Group’s role within it. “The challenge is to bring together partnerships that work well together in this niche business. We have a lot of expertise to offer. Like I said in the beginning, I want to see a movement from aspiration to implementation, which means the responsibility is on us all, the government, client, design and contractor teams to be thinking critically about sustainability and our contribution to a better future.”

In closing, Ross highlights that Normet Group is committed to its contribution, and for him, the company’s success is owed to a fantastic team and development of leading-edge technology. “The beauty we have here is the advanced construction materials, the new generation of EV equipment, and our expertise in tunnelling processes. They all put us in a unique position to support our projects brilliantly,” he concludes.