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Hammers, Water, Lasers Make Deep Drilling Easier


This hydrothermal spallation drill breaks granite with jets of heated fluid.
Photo: belleimages.net

The process of punching a well hasn't changed in a century. The search for oil, gas, or water may extend more than 7 miles, but it's still done with a tricone bit—three grinding cones angled inward and downward, with spinning teeth. This system is effective at crushing and shearing, but every time a bit wears out, engineers have to "trip" the drill: They bring the head to the surface, change it, and send it back down. A lot of drilling time is actually tripping time, which means a project's cost goes up exponentially with depth. So researchers are developing replacement technologies to reach superheated water for geothermal power or stretch down to previously inaccessible fossil fuel. Here are a few ideas for parts that will be greater than the hole.
The Next Drills
Hydrothermal Spallation
Potter Drilling of California uses jets of superheated fluid to break through granite five times faster than traditional techniques, which don't do well against hard rock types. The first field test of the technology is scheduled for next year in the Sierra Nevada.
Laser Drilling
Scientists at Argonne National Laboratory repurposed a 1.6-kilowatt industrial laser to burn through shale, limestone, and sandstone. Their relatively cheap technology hasn't made it out of the lab, but Argonne is working with a startup to commercialize it.

Pneumatic Hammers
Normal hammers slam into rock 30 to 60 times per second. Sandia National Laboratories has overclocked theirs to 100 strikes and subbed metal for plastic so that the hammer can withstand the temperatures (up to 600 degrees Fahrenheit) inside a geothermal well.
 
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