Tag Archives: drilling

This robotic thermal bore can cut through undrillable rock without making direct contact

Swifty blasting hard rock like a hot knife through butter. Credit: Petra.

Tunneling often proves a hard nut to crack. Civil engineers tasked with making new tunnels for a highway or subway station will often encounter rocks that will break even the sturdiest drill bits. When this inevitably happens, the demo squad is called in since only dynamite can save the day. But Petra, a startup hailing from sunny San Francisco, claims to have a solution.

The company has developed a thermal drilling semi-autonomous robot, aptly named “Swifty”, that can bore through the hardest geologies on earth by pulverizing rock. Rather than using mechanical drills, the robot employs a hot, high-pressure head that displaces rock without any direct contact.

In a recent demonstration, Swifty made tunnels between 18 and 60 inches (45-152 cm) in diameter, blasting through all sorts of rock. This includes a 24-inch tunnel through 20 feet of sioux quartzite, widely considered the hardest rock on earth that only dynamite can break. The robot made the tunnel at a rate of about an inch a minute.

“No tunneling method has been able to tunnel through this kind of hard rock until now. Petra’s achievement is due to Swifty’s thermal drilling method which efficiently bores through rock without touching it,” Ian Wright, Petra CTO and a Tesla co-founder, said in a statement.

Petra’s robot uses machine vision, an AI system that essentially is supposed to allow a robot to ‘see’ and make decisions based on the obstructions it encounters. When the robot is put to work, it blasts rock with a mixture of hot gas above 1,000 °C (2,000 °F), breaking the rock into smaller fragments. Once the rock is broken into bits, a powerful vacuum sucks in the fragments, clearing the way for more drilling.

“Petra is able to bore through the hardest geologies on earth, enabling customers to [install] underground utilities in difficult geographical regions most at-risk for wildfires and hurricanes. In addition, we can simplify urban utility projects in cities by allowing engineers to navigate below the maze of existing grid infrastructure,” according to a company statement.

The startup’s technology is inspired by experiments performed in the 1960s by scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, who imagined a nuclear-powered tunneling machine that could travel through Earth’s upper mantle or even the Moon’s crust. The rock-melting drill devised there never amounted to anything, but Petra picked up where others left off and conducted its first tests in an industrial park in Oakland, California in 2018. These initial tests used a plasma torch but it was soon abandoned in favor of gas and heat, which proved a less cumbersome setup.

Although Swifty could theoretically be used successfully in boring operations for tunnels serving transportation, there are already economically feasible solutions for this industry. Instead, Petra’s product aims to make tunneling through bedrock cheap enough to provide the right incentive for utilities to bury their electricity, broadband, and other lines underground.

According to Wired, burying power lines costs at least five times more than running them above ground while hard-rock installations can cost up to 20 times more. The advantage is that maintenance costs are much lower since the cables are sheltered from the elements, something that is particularly appealing in extreme weather-prone areas. Local citizens can enjoy a nice view of their city without having to see dangling spider webs overhead.

Petra claims that Swifty’s thermal drilling can cut the cost of tunneling through bedrock by 50% to 80%. But that remains to be proven before the industry can climb aboard the Swifty train. The startup is now testing its heat-based drilling method in a variety of settings and geologies from granite to limestone ranging from California to the Appalachian Mountains. 

Companies push to start drilling for oil in Arctic refuge

After the US Congress opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil and gas production — a long-sought goal of Republicans — fossil fuel companies are moving on start surveying the region, and move on to drilling as soon as possible.

Pristine no more — oil drilling might soon commence in the Alaskan Arctic. Image credits: DoI.

It’s an almost cartoonish situation: the corporations are pushing for the production of oil in a pristine, Arctic environment. Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation, two Alaska Native companies, have applied for a permit to begin seismic surveying. The surveys would reveal the most oil-rich areas, as well as the best areas to drill in.

Of course, unlike in cartoons, the situation is much more complex in real life. Companies promised that the entire process will be “environmentally sensitive” — but leaked documents revealed that the Fish and Wildlife Service already rejected the initial plan as “not adequate,” noting its “lack of applicable details for proper agency review.” If the prospection surveys were deemed inadequate, one can only imagine under the conditions in which the actuall drilling would be carried out.

Meanwhile, environmentalists are still fighting to keep the Arctic refuge clean, but, without political support, they’re fighting an uphill battle. The area the companies want to explore includes the location of the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd, which are economically and culturally important for local Gwich’in First Nation. The proposed area is also a sanctuary for the Gwich’in First Nation people — they don’t even visit it, not wanting to risk any damage.

But companies aren’t much interested in this, and they’re moving fast. This speed is also rather unusual.

“Why can’t they just wait to have more information?” Gwich’in Steering Committee executive director Bernadette Dementieff told Earther. “The oil isn’t going anywhere. There’s nothing wrong with waiting. It makes no sense to rush.”

The likely reason is that the companies probably fear a change of policy. The oil-rich area was closely watched by companies for decades, but despite intensive lobby, administration after administration (be it Republican or Democrat) has refused to allow exploration — until now. The current administration has been remarkably unconcerned about environmental efforts and has passed almost everything the fossil fuel lobby has asked for. It makes a lot of sense to worry that a more responsible administration will undo many of these measures.

Meanwhile, local communities and environmentalists are struggling to find solutions. They weren’t even aware of the applications until contacted by Earther.

“That is completely insane and disrespectful,” Dementieff said, adding that she believes the Native communities in Alaska will rally together to stop the drilling from ever occurring. “We’ll go to every courtroom. We’ll go to every community meeting. We’re not giving up. We’re not going to allow them to destroy the calving grounds.”

For now, the only thing that’s stopping surveying is the inadequate plans of surveys. That may soon change.

Surtsey Island.

Researchers will drill into one of Earth’s youngest islands to understand how land forms

 One of the world’s youngest islands will be drilled in an effort to understand how land forms on Earth.

Surtsey Island.

Surtsey island, as seen in 2001.
Image credits ICDP.

The tiny island of Surtsey wasn’t even there 50 years ago. This 1.3 square kilometer island was formed off Iceland’s southwestern coast somewhere between 1963 and 1967 by a series of volcanic eruptions. And next month, a team of scientists will drill two holes into the depths of this young land. Supported in part by the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program, this will be the most detailed look at newly-formed land, which researchers hope will help them understand how molten rock, cold seawater, and the underground biosphere interact.

Why here

Being so new, Surtsey could probably boast some of the wildest, most untouched environments currently on the planet. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, earmarked for scientific observation — mainly regarding the biogeographic evolution of new land as it’s being colonized by plants and wildlife.

One particular point of interest is to see how hydrothermal minerals fit into the island’s rocks. These are believed to be at the root of Surtsey’s resilience against the North Atlantic Ocean’s waves and could help engineers design stronger blends of concrete. Another is to see how underground flora feeds on the minerals contained in rocks and hot fluids — helping us understand the role of the deep crustal biosphere in the environments we see topside.

The first of the drill holes will run parallel to an 181-meter deep hole drilled in 1979, which the scientists will use to see how microbes on the island evolved over time. This has been monitored since it was first drilled and is now likely teeming with micro-organisms indigenous to Surtsey. The team plans to place five incubation chambers in the new hole, at different depths, let them stay for a year, then checking them for microbes that have moved in.

The landscape on Surtsey (Wikipedia).

A second drill will be set at an angle and will investigate the hot fluids percolating (flowing) through the volcanic cracks and craters that formed Surtsey. Information gleaned here will help geologists reconstruct the sub surface volcano system that built Surtsey. In the initial contact between seawater and hot magma, hydrothermal vents formed in the rock. It made them less porous and helped reinforce Surtsey’s shores against erosion. This places it in stark contrast to other volcanic islands, which get ground down by the waves pretty rapidly after formation. Getting a better idea of how these minerals evolved over time could help engineers create better, more resilient types of concrete.

If all goes according to plan, both holes will pass through the original 1960s ocean floor, at about 190m below sea level.

Iceland’s Coast Guard will start shuttling in the required 60 tonnes of equipment and supplies drillers will need on Surtsey, which they estimate will take around 100 helicopter flights. In accordance with UNESCO regulations, all waste will be removed from the island, including the sterilized seawater to be used as drilling fluid. Drilling will be performed 24 hours a day to keep the operation as short as possible, and only 12 people will be allowed on the island at a time. The rest of the team will stay on the neighboring island of Heimæy.

Iceland drilling project close to plugging into the Mid-Atlantic ridge

A new geothermal drilling project in Iceland could produce ten times as much power as regular wells by tapping into the molten mantle of the planet.

Image credits IDDP.

While it may not look like it on the surface (especially now that fall is in full swing), the Earth is a very hot ball of space rock. Dig just a few kilometers under the surface, and you’ll hit temperatures high enough to make water boil. Dig deeper and at about 10 to 70 km (6 to 43 miles), depending on the kind of crust, you’ll find yourself in a place hot enough for rocks to stay molten all the time — the mantle. This is the stuff on which tectonic plates float on. This is where all the volcanoes in the world draw their lava from. And, ultimately, this is where all geothermal plants draw power from.

The hottest hole in the world

A new Icelandic project began on the 12th of August with the aim of supercharging geothermal energy production by drilling a 5 km (3.1 mile) deep hole in the Reykjanes area, southwest Iceland. This would bypass a thick layer of rocks (which aren’t very good thermal conductors) and allow engineers to draw power directly from magma systems that power the area’s lively subsurface volcanism. This may very well become the hottest hole in the world, with estimates placing temperatures anywhere between 400 and 1,000 degrees Celsius.

Called the Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP), the goal is to drill all the way down to a landward extension of the Mid-Atlantic ridge — a major fissure between Earth’s tectonic plates — says Albert Albertsson, assistant director of HS Orka, an Icelandic geothermal energy company involved in the project. Here, magma heats water under the ocean’s floor. Pressures are incredibly high, around 200 atmospheres, which means that the researchers and companies behind the project will likely find the water as “supercritical steam”. It’s neither a liquid nor a gaseous state, sharing properties of both — but most importantly, it can store much more energy than either of those states.

“People have drilled into hard rock at this depth, but never before into a fluid system like this,” says Albertsson.

Albertsson said they’re expecting to find the land version of black smokers, underwater springs that run hot enough to dissolve metals such as gold or silver.

“If they can get supercritical steam in deep boreholes, that will make an order of magnitude difference to the amount of geothermal energy the wells can produce,” Arnar Guðmundsson from Invest in Iceland, a government agency that promotes energy development, told New Scientist.

The project’s idea of tapping sub-surface magma came back in 2009 when the IDDP (then drilling a conventional well) accidentally drilled into a molten rock reservoir about 2 km (1.25 miles). Just to see how much energy it could generate, the team poured water down the hole — and ended up producing 30 megawatts of power.

If this attempt is successful and proves to be more sustainable than the 2009 experiment, we could see a huge increase in geothermal energy output in areas with active volcanism, such as Japan or California. The drilling should be done by the end of the year, and in the following months, we’ll get to see just how much power it can churn out.

The project was short-lived, seeing as it was only ever set up as an experiment, but the team is hoping this new attempt will be more sustainable.

But before you get too excited, for now, this is all purely theoretical – we need to actually get the new well up and running first. The hole should be drilled by the end of the year, and in the months that follow, we’ll get an idea of how much electricity such a set-up can generate.


First samples from lake Vostok (isolated for millions of years) are microbe-free

A first analysis of the ice that froze onto the drillbit used to drill in the pristine Vostok lake shows no native microbes came with the ice.

A while ago, researchers understood that precious insight on alien life could be found right here on Earth – in Russia, to be more precise. But Antarctica’s is a continent after all, so let’s get’s get even more specific: Lake Vostok is perhaps the only truly isolated ecosystem on Earth; it is covered by a sheet of ice which can be tracked down to over 400.000 years, but the water itself was probably isolated for 15 to 25 million years.

Russians have been trying to dig into the lake for decades now, but after enormous efforts, the ice was finally melted and the first drills were able to penetrate the Vostok ice. A big problem was contamination; the lake is pristine, untouched by any type of earthly influence, and it’s practically impossible to drill into it without contaminating it – but Russians took the chance.

The first extracted samples show that the top layer of the lake is absolutely lifeless. Sergey Bulat of Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute (Russia) explain that these results are only preliminary, and even if the top is indeed lifeless, that doesn’t mean the rest of the lake is too, but this comes as a slight disappointment after all the years of hard work.

Bulat and his colleagues counted the microbes present in the ice sample and checked their genetic makeup to figure out the phylotypes. They counted fewer than 10 microbes/ml – which is about as much as you’d expect in a clean room. Also, 3 of the 4 microbe types were already identified as contaminants from the drilling oil, the 4th being most likely used in the lubricant.

There won’t be another drilling expedition until May, so scientists will have to wait until next year to see if the deeper parts of the lake are just as ‘dry’. There’s good reason to hope for more though, as at the bottom of the lake there lie several hot springs which maintain a high temperature and also pump nutrients into the lake.

Studying and understanding a sealed, extreme environment such as lake Vostok could prove to be extremely important for exobiologists who search for life in extreme environments such as Jupiter’s moon Europa.

UPDATE: A team of researchers from the US have drilled through hundreds of meters of Antarctic ice and found evidence of life in a subglacial lake, isolated from the outside world for maybe millions of years. If life could survive there, isolated and thus presumably devoid of oxygen and nutrients, then microbial life might just as well survive in similar environments outside Earth – like our own icy moon of Europa.

Source: Nature