Oil and gas industry tests lasers for drilling

June 1, 2001
The viability of using high-power lasers to drill for oil and gas is being investigated by the Gas Technology Institute and the US Department of Energy's (DOE) National Energy Technology Laboratory, in collaboration with industry partners.

The viability of using high-power lasersincluding some originally conceived for the "Star Wars" missile defense conceptto drill for oil and gas is being investigated by the Gas Technology Institute (GTI; Des Plaines, IL) and the US Department of Energy's (DOE) National Energy Technology Laboratory (Morgantown, WV), in collaboration with industry partners. If drilling with lasers proves feasible, it will be the most radical change in drilling technology in more than 100 years.

In theory, a laser drilling system would transfer light energy from lasers on the surface down a borehole by a fiberoptic bundle, to a series of lenses that direct the laser light to rock.

State-of-the-art lasers have the potential to penetrate rock at 10 to 100 times faster than conventional boring technologiesa huge benefit in reducing the high costs associated with operating a drill rig. Researchers believe that lasers also have the ability to melt rock in a way that creates a ceramic sheath in the wellbore, eliminating the expense of buying and setting steel well casing. In downhole measurement applications, the laser head could even be equipped with sensors such as televiewers and other image logs for continuous, high-speed communication of data with the surface.

"Now is the time to introduce a fundamental improvement in drilling systems," says Brian Gahahn, project principal investigator, GTI. "We're hopeful that encouraging results from the study will generate industry interest in supporting the development of a prototype laser drilling tool."

In related studies conducted in 1997, more than 200 samples of various lithologies were exposed to a range of power levels, wavelengths, durations, and beam diameters. Three laser systems were tested, including the US Army's Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser (MIRACL); the US Air Force's Chemical Oxygen/Iodine Laser (COIL); and a Laser Hardening Material Experimental Laboratory Carbon Dioxide Laser. Of the three systems, MIRACL and COIL showed the most promise as drilling lasers. MIRACL, developed for shipboard defense and used extensively to test "Star Wars" concepts during the 1980s and 1990s, is the highest average-power laser (megawatt class) in the US. It operates at a wavelength of 3.8 µm and has the demonstrated power levels needed to burn through solid materials such as soft rock minerals. COIL, originally developed as an airborne laser tactical weapon, is a high-powered laser that operates at a wavelength of 1.3 µm with a precision that could be applied to drill and complete wells at depths of more than 15,000 ft.

During the next three years, the project's researchers will focus on three fundamental research areaslaser-cutting energy assessment, variable-pulse laser effects, and laser drilling under fluid conditions.

The laser-cutting energy assessment will be developed by obtaining precise measurements of the energy requirements needed to transmit light from surface lasers down a borehole with enough power to bore through rocks 20,000 ft or more below the surface.

Variable-pulse laser effects will be tested to determine whether sending the laser light in sharp pulses, rather than as a continuous stream, could further increase the rate of rock penetration. The pulsing action may flex and break the physical bonds between the rock grains, boosting the cutting effectiveness.

Laser drilling under fluid conditions will be investigated to determine whether lasers can be used in the presence of drilling fluids. In most wells, thick fluidscalled "drilling muds"are injected into the borehole to wash out rock cuttings and keep water and other fluids from the underground formations from seeping into the well. The technical challenge will be to determine whether too much laser energy is expended to vaporize and clear away the fluid at the drill site.

Also participating in the research effort are the Colorado School of Mines (Golden, CO), DOE's Argonne National Laboratory (Argonne, IL), Halliburton Energy Services (Dallas, TX) and Petroleos de Venezuela, SA (Caracas, Venezuela).

About the Author

Sally Cole Johnson | Senior Technical Editor

Sally Cole Johnson has worked as a writer for over 20 years, covering physics, semiconductors, electronics, quantum, the Internet of Things (IoT), optics, photonics, high-performance computing, IT networking and security, neuroscience, and military embedded systems. She served as an associate editor for Laser Focus World in the early 2000s, and rejoined the editorial team as senior technical editor in January 2022.

Sponsored Recommendations

Request a quote: Micro 3D Printed Part or microArch micro-precision 3D printers

April 11, 2024
See the results for yourself! We'll print a benchmark part so that you can assess our quality. Just send us your file and we'll get to work.

Request a free Micro 3D Printed sample part

April 11, 2024
The best way to understand the part quality we can achieve is by seeing it first-hand. Request a free 3D printed high-precision sample part.

How to Tune Servo Systems: The Basics

April 10, 2024
Learn how to tune a servo system using frequency-based tools to meet system specifications by watching our webinar!

Precision Motion Control for Sample Manipulation in Ultra-High Resolution Tomography

April 10, 2024
Learn the critical items that designers and engineers must consider when attempting to achieve reliable ultra-high resolution tomography results here!

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Laser Focus World, create an account today!