Jan. 5, 1999 LOS ALAMOS, N.M. -- The Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers currently are testing new microdrilling technology that may revolutionize the way underground resource exploration is carried out in the 21st century, at greatly reduced cost. The technology may even one day be used on space missions for boring "microholes" in planetary bodies or utilized as drain holes or root systems.
As a complementary part of this project, the researchers, in collaboration with U.S. industry, also are developing miniature seismic instrumentation packages that can be placed inside the microholes for data gathering. Virtually any microsensor may one day be able to take advantage of the microdrilling technology.
The technology consists of a standard mining drill bit and oil field drillout turbine attached to a steel coil that's one inch in diameter, compared to conventional production well drills used today by oil and gas and other companies that can be anywhere from six inches to more than a foot in diameter.
The steel coil is wrapped around a tubing reel that resembles a water hose holder. The reel can hold thousands of feet of coil and is part of a drilling system that ultimately will occupy a space roughly 1/20 that of a typical rig, said Jim Albright, leader for Los Alamos' Geoengineering Group. He added the new rig costs about 90 percent less than a conventional rig.
The coil is placed though an injector wellhead, then begins drilling holes less than two inches in diameter. The steel coil is flexible enough to drill holes at various angles. Albright also said microdrilling realizes additional savings because it requires only about a barrel of fluid per 1,000 feet of drilling for lubricating the bit and motor and removing dirt, whereas conventional drilling requires about 40 barrels of fluid per 1,000 feet. "In addition to the greatly reduced cost, one of the other benefits of microdrilling is that it can be used to extend existing production wells," he added.
Several major oil companies are contributing financial or technical support for technology development. The Department of Energy also is providing financial support for development of a microhole drilling infrastructure.
Albright said as electronic circuitry continues to shrink in size, microdrilling may one day become the preferred tool for placing other sensors deep underground to perform an array of data-gathering activities, including monitoring soil contamination and underground nuclear testing.
The microdrilling technology currently is undergoing the first phase of testing at Fenton Hill, a site located about 40 miles northwest of Los Alamos and managed by the Laboratory for research. Thus far, the results are encouraging, Albright said.
"We need to make sure that the technology can be used across different types of sedimentary rock and that the drilled holes remain stable and don't cave in. After all, the holes being drilled are less than two inches wide." The microdrill currently is boring through volcanic rock, or tuff, on Fenton Hill.
Albright also said he hopes Los Alamos researchers will be able to drill down to a target depth of 6,000 feet within the next three to five years.
Los Alamos National Laboratory is managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy.
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