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SPE/IADC 102017

Laser Drilling Research and Application: An Update


Pankaj Sinha and Aabhaas Gour, Indian School of Mines

Copyright 2006, SPE/IADC Indian Drilling Technology Conference and Exhibition


This paper was prepared for presentation at the 2006 SPE/IADC Indian Drilling Technology
Conference and Exhibition held in Mumbai, India, 1618 October 2006.
This paper was selected for presentation by an SPE/IADC Program Committee following
review of information contained in an abstract submitted by the author(s). Contents of the
paper, as presented, have not been reviewed by the Society of Petroleum Engineers or
International Association of Drilling Contractors and are subject to correction by the author(s).
The material, as presented, does not necessarily reflect any position of the SPE, IADC, their
officers, or members. Electronic reproduction, distribution, or storage of any part of this paper
for commercial purposes without the written consent of the Society of Petroleum Engineers
and International Association of Drilling Contractors is prohibited. Permission to reproduce in
print is restricted to an abstract of not more than 300 words; illustrations may not be copied.
The abstract must contain conspicuous acknowledgment of where and by whom the paper
was presented. Write Librarian, SPE, P.O. Box 833836, Richardson, TX 75083-3836, U.S.A.,
fax 1.972.952.9435.

Abstract
The paper is an update to the current status of laser drilling
technique - the first fundamental change to rotary drilling. We
begin with a brief note on history of physical tests in 60's and
70's which were limited by the laser technology and low
power available at that time. Seven lasers have been identified
for potential use in the upstream oil industry. Each rock type
has a set of optimal laser parameters to minimize specific
energy as observed in the linear track tests. Current efforts are
focused on underwater laser drilling.
Next, stress has been put on the basic scientific principles that
can bring laser drilling within reach of an industry-supported
prototype. Hence, the methods of delivering laser radiation
and rock removal from wells drilled followed by parameters
like feasibility, economics, benefits and environmental impact
related to laser drilling have been discussed.
Laser drilling is found to be more efficient, cleaner way to
drill and perforate wells through hard rock formations
encountered at greater depths. The effects of the laser rock
interaction on permeability have also been studied. Laser
perforation resulted in permeability improvements. One of the
major advantages of laser drilling is its potential to reduce
drilling time. Lasers cut drilling time by not contacting the
rock, eliminating the need to stop and replace a mechanical
bit. Finally, we end with a discussion on the wider scope of
laser technology for on-site tasks including cutting windows
for side exiting casing or laterals, extended perforations that
connect additional reservoir rock to the well bore, and removal
of objects lost down hole that would normally require drill out
or fishing operations.
Introduction
Almost three decade old experiments and studies had declared
laser drilling as technically unviable. The earliest studies were
directed at enhancing tunneling machines used in mining

industry by use of lasers. Lasers available at those times were


of very low power, produced large wavelengths and were
unsafe for industrial use. Naturally, laser drilling was never
considered feasible for the oil industry either. There was a
great resistance by the oil industry when cable tool drilling
was replaced by the rotary drilling. It involved the huge efforts
from the rich, powerful and influential innovative people to
bring such a change in the drilling practices. Laser drilling
technique will have to cross major obstacles before it can be
accepted as the first fundamental change to rotary drilling
methods.
Laser
The Laser devices are those which convert one form of energy
into photons which are electro magnetic radiations. Advances
in laser technology supplemented by research and
experimentation on laser-rock-fluid interactions have launched
laser drilling as a bright option for the oil community.
Following seven lasers have been identified to be useful from
the oil industry perspective [2]:
1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

Hydrogen Fluoride and Deuterium Fluoride


Laser: These have operating wavelength range of 2.6
4.2 micrometer. MIRACL was used for reservoir
rocks test.
Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser: Operates at
wavelength of 1.315 micrometer. It is possible to
destroy missiles with its help that too with a great
precision and high range. Such high precision and
range can be successfully used to tackle a number of
well problems.
Carbon dioxide Laser: Operates at wavelength of
10.6 micrometer with average power of 1MW. It can
operate in both continuous and pulsed wave mode.
However, because of its large wavelength,
attenuation occurs through fiber optics.
Carbon monoxide Laser: Operates at wavelength of
5-6 micrometer. It can also operate in both
continuous and pulsed wave mode. Its average power
is 200KW.
Free Electron Laser: In CW mode, this can be tuned
to any wavelength and is considered as high power
laser for future. Thus its wavelength can be adjusted
in case of reflection, blackbody radiation, etc.
Neodymium: Yttrium Aluminum Garnet Laser:
Operates at 1.06 micrometer wavelength with power
of 4KW.

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7.

Krypton Fluoride (excimer) Laser: Operates at


0.248 micrometer wavelength with power of 10KW.
It can be operated in RP mode. In this laser, the
atoms of Krypton and Fluoride in KrF molecule are
in excited state.

Lasers are characterized by laser parameters like laser type,


wavelength, mode of operation (CW or RP), power density,
beam profile etc. Accordingly, decision needs to be taken over
the choice of the laser system to bring about most efficient
drilling operation.
Mechanism of rock destruction
Specific Energy is defined as the energy required to move a
unit volume of rock for a given laser system. It has been found
that usually specific energy is lowest for shale followed by
sandstone and limestone [1]. This is an important factor as
70% of formation encountered while drilling consists of shale.
Limestone has a high threshold energy compared to sandstone
and shale [6].
Rock spallation: The laser radiations incident on the rocks are
reflected, scattered or absorbed. Reflected and scattered beam
are the losses while it is the absorbed beam that is responsible
for rock heating and destruction. Again, the absorbed energy is
utilized for fusion (melting), vaporization or spallation of the
rock. It has been found that rock spallation is the most
efficient and hence, the desirable mode for rock destruction
[3]. During spallation, the rock absorbs heat resulting in
development of cracks within the rock. The rock weakens and
breaks away. Spallation requires lesser specific energy and
rock removal is easier. For spallation, specific energy is found
to be inversely related to specific power. Rate of penetration is
related to specific power and specific energy by following
relation [10]:
ROP = SP / SE
Here, the basic difference between SP and SE simply lies in
the fact that SP is the power delivered to the laser system
while SE is the amount of energy consumed for spallation of a
given formation. Thus to improve rate of penetration, high
specific power and low specific energy should be used. Laser
spallation mechanism satisfies the above criterion and hence is
preferable over conventional methods. Spallation is usually
attributed to the thermal stresses induced in the rock upon
lasing. The imperfections or flaws existing in rocks are
aggravated upon application of heat via lasing. The rock fails
along these flaw lines and finally spalls (figure 1). Sometimes,
in case of thermally conductive rocks, lasing can lead to
dehydration of the water of crystallization associated with
minerals present within the rock formation exposed to lasing.
These evaporated vapors expand within the rock volume
inducing stresses leading to mechanical failure and hence
promotes spallation.
Conditions need to be identified under which the laser energy
will break and remove rock without significant melting (refer
fig. 2).The zone on the left is spallation zone occurring at
lower average power. Melting zone is on the right. Specific
energy for spallation is lowest just before melting. At low

laser powers, considerable energy is consumed by thermal


expansion, fracture formation and mineral decomposition
leaving little energy left for destruction of rock material.
Hence, as power increases, rock removal gets more effective.
Once melting starts, secondary effects begin to consume
additional energy and SE values increase. Therefore, it is
desired for the laser to work within the spallation zone and as
close to the transition zone.
Black body radiation and plasma screening effects can affect
the magnitude of specific energy while drilling. When rock
temperature becomes high upon lasing, it turns into an intense
source of radiation (black-body). Result, a substantial amount
of incident energy is emitted back. Else, ionized gas (plasma)
can form over the surface exposed to laser. This plasma layer
formed just above the lased rock surface reduces the transfer
of energy to rocks [2].
Laser based drilling system design
The research team visualizes a drilling system that would
transfer light energy from a laser system placed on the surface,
down a borehole by a fiber optic bundle, to a series of lenses
that would direct the laser light to the rock face. Large hole
can be created by overlapped lasing and creating small holes
adjacent to each other. The exact method for getting the laser
energy to the bottom of the hole is the subject of future paper;
hence some type of delivery system has to be designed.
One of the basic decisions in designing a laser based drilling
system is over the choice of the laser system. Drilling rate may
no longer depend on parameters like weight-on-bit, mud flow
rate, rotary speed, bit design, bore size [1]. Laser parameters
like laser type, wavelength, mode of operation (CW or RP),
power density, beam profile can be considered to develop the
most efficient laser drilling system. Near-infrared radiation
can be preferred over visible radiation as availability of high
power lasers is in the infrared [6].
Method of creating big holes: Multiple overlapping beam
shots may enable a larger hole (refer fig. 3 & 4). Geometric
pattern applications, beam overlap and spacing , focal distance
changes while lasing, thermal relaxation time between two
successive shots and beam intercept angle are some of the
factors that could be considered for the above. Care could be
taken for the following [6]:
1. Chances of melting increases when CW is exposed to
a single point, thus relaxation time should be
provided.
2. Higher SE values are observed when the depth of a
single-beam hole exceeds its diameter.
3. Size of hole is a function of number of beams, their
arrangement and burst frequency.
4. Hole separation should be varying so that to prevent
formation of any ridge which may hinder downward
movement of laser head.
Rock removal: Technologies may have to be developed to
clean the hole of the gas, similar to the use of drilling fluids in
rotary drilling, thus increasing the ROP. For this, water jet can
be used [5]. Also, nitrogen gas can be used as a purging gas to

SPE/IADC 102017

blow the ejected gases and debris from the rock surface and to
clean the hole [10]. Rock spallation produces chips which
have to be removed from the bore. Conventional drilling
practices use drilling fluids for the same (removal of drill
cuttings) while working of laser in presence of drilling fluids
is yet to be researched. Hence, efficiency of lasers in fluids
and design of gas purging system and other such systems for
cleaning of bore hole remain to be the topics for future
projects.
Results
A laser based system will have numerous advantages over
conventional methods. Need for concentric casings may be
eliminated. A single diameter hole might be drilled with or
without the need for a casing string. Rig size may be reduced,
casing cost reduced (if any). Deviation of well from the
desired profile is least expected as photons in laser move in
straight paths. Laser drilling is expected to reduce or eliminate
the use of bits, hence reducing the costs due to trip time. Most
important, much higher than conventional ROP values can be
achieved bringing down the drilling costs [1]. Also, MWD
operations could be easier and more efficient. In case of
drilling salt sections, oil based mud has to be used in
conventional methods. Further, cuttings need more treatment
before disposal with non-aqueous base fluids. However, laser
drilling method is expected to be more environment friendly in
such cases.
Effects of Laser drilling on permeability: Both porosity and
permeability were found to be increased after the application
of laser on rock; however the extent of increment depends
upon thermal conductivity of the rock [7]. Significant increase
in permeability was noticed in case of sandstones having high
thermal conductivity, while insignificant change in
permeability was observed in case of rocks with low thermal
conductivity like limestone. This is because in case of high
thermal conductivity rocks, the heat transfer is more compared
to low thermal conductivity rocks thus causing expansion of
some constituents of mineralogy such as water in clays which
vaporizes thus increasing pressure resulting in fractures [8].
The porosity increment was 50% in case of Berea sandstone,
and 150% in case of shaly sandstone. Lower increment in
porosity was observed in case of limestone (about 20%). The
permeability increase was also greatest in case of shaly
sandstone (of the order of 170%). Less permeability increase
was observed in limestone (35%) [7].
Laser perforation: Perforation with lasers if ever
implemented would not require any perforators. It might also
prevent the formation damage caused by conventional
perforating methods. Debris resulting due to use of perforating
guns may plug the pores in the formation and further needs
stimulation or work over. In conventional methods,
unintended fractures may be created connecting other zones to
perforated zone. Casing may also get fractured. Laser
perforation is expected to overcome above problems and
provide a more efficient and economic method. A little more
innovation with lasers can enable us to think of lasers being
used for making casing exit windows and other such
operations at the drill site.

Fishing: The laser based system is expected to be associated


with lesser fishing jobs because of use of lighter components
instead of the bulky drill string. Even in case of tool-lost or
fish in the well, we expect lesser chances of the need to side
track the well as the fish may be melted or spalled by lasing.
Conclusion
There is still no substitute for drilling which remains the only
way to have an access to reservoir fluids and a very important
source to gather lithological, geological and various such
information. Conventional rotary drilling practices are very
expensive and new concept of laser drilling technique can
revolutionize the current state of oil industry. A typical
onshore well could cost around $400,000 to drill. Laser
drilling technique offers 10-100 times higher ROP values.
Even a 10 times faster system designed will reduce the rig
time by one-tenth, thereby the rig cost by one-tenth. Hence, a
properly designed laser based drilling system can drastically
bring down the drilling costs. Clearly, the lure of laser drilling
has been its speed. Also, laser drilling could make previously
uneconomic resources commercially attractive. Laser
technology might also perform horizontal drilling and clear
debris from a well bore. However, the actual implementation
of above concepts into a real drilling system remains the next
major challenge.
Recommendations
Research needs to be done on the following:
1. During laser drilling, formation of gases in the hole
affects ROP and may be a health hazard also.
2. Considering simultaneous effects of reservoir
pressure and temperature. While stress in rock
increases the specific energy [3], high thermal
conductivity results in a wide range of temperature
distribution resulting in improved porosity and
permeability and decreased rock strength [8].
3. In all rock types, youngs moduli, shear moduli, bulk
moduli and combined moduli are found to reduce on
being lased [8].
4. Decision is yet to be made on use of chopped or
continuous laser beams. Gas purging system, laser
beam delivery system need to be designed and lasermud interaction needs to be studied with special
attention to rock removal mechanism.
Acknowledgement
The authors would like to thank the Society of Petroleum
Engineers for providing strong technical feedback regarding
the paper. We are also thankful to the faculty and the students
of Department of Petroleum, Indian School of Mines for their
technical discussions and contributions. Special thanks to
Rejith M. Rajan, ISM for his technical inputs to the paper.
Nomenclature
CW = Continuous Wave
RP = Repetitively Pulsed
ROP = Rate of Penetration
SP = Specific Power
SE = Specific Energy
MWD = Measurement While Drilling

SPE/IADC 102017

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Fig. 1 Thermal Spallation

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Fig. 2 Spallation and Melting Zone

SPE/IADC 102017

Fig. 3 Overlapping of Laser Beams

Fig. 4 Hexagonal overlap: More Efficient