Limits of Technology in Drilling

Drill technology has advanced steadily since the 19th century. However, there are several basic limiting factors which will determine the depth to which a bore hole can be sunk.

All holes must maintain outer diameter; the diameter of the hole must remain wider than the diameter of the rods or the rods cannot turn in the hole and progress cannot continue. Friction caused by the drilling operation will tend to reduce the outside diameter of the drill bit. This applies to all drilling methods, except that in diamond core drilling the use of thinner rods and casing may permit the hole to continue. Casing is simply a hollow sheath which protects the hole against collapse during drilling, and is made of metal or PVC. Often diamond holes will start off at a large diameter and when outside diameter is lost, thinner rods put down inside casing to continue, until finally the hole becomes too narrow. Alternatively, the hole can be reamed; this is the usual practice in oil well drilling where the hole size is maintained down to the next casing point.

For percussion techniques, the main limitation is air pressure. Air must be delivered to the piston at sufficient pressure to activate the reciprocating action, and in turn drive the head into the rock with sufficient strength to fracture and pulverise it. With depth, volume is added to the in-rod string, requiring larger compressors to achieve operational pressures. Secondly, groundwater is ubiquitous, and increases in pressure with depth in the ground. The air inside the rod string must be pressurised enough to overcome this water pressure at the bit face. Then, the air must be able to carry the rock fragments to surface. This is why depths in excess of 500 m for reverse circulation drilling are rarely achieved, because the cost is prohibitive and approaches the threshold at which diamond core drilling is more economic.

Diamond drilling can routinely achieve depths in excess of 1200 m. In cases where money is no issue, extreme depths have been achieved, because there is no requirement to overcome water pressure. However, circulation must be maintained to return the drill cuttings to surface, and more importantly to maintain cooling and lubrication of the cutting surface.

Without sufficient lubrication and cooling, the matrix of the drill bit will soften. While diamond is the hardest substance known, at 10 on the Mohs hardness scale, it must remain firmly in the matrix to achieve cutting. Weight on bit, the force exerted on the cutting face of the bit by the drill rods in the hole above the bit, must also be monitored.

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