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SPE 84844

Numerical Investigation of Laser Drilling

N. Bjorndalen, H.A. Belhaj, SPE, K.R. Agha and M.R. Islam, SPE, Dalhousie Unversity
Copyright 2003, Society of Petroleum Engineers Inc.
This paper was prepared for presentation at the SPE Eastern Regional/AAPG Eastern Section
Joint Meeting held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., 610 September 2003.
This paper was selected for presentation by an SPE 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 and are subject to
correction by the author(s). The material, as presented, does not necessarily reflect any
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The need for a new method of drilling oil and gas wells is
immense. Current drilling techniques used were developed at
the beginning of the last century. Many problems persist with
this method including downtime due to dull bits, the lack of
precise vertical or horizontal wells and formation fluid leakage
during drilling due to the lack of a seal around the hole. Laser
drilling is a new technology that has been proposed as a
method to eliminate the current problems while drilling and
provide a less expensive alternative to conventional methods.
Although lasers have found widespread use in many
industries, it is only recently that research in this area has been
redirected to the oil and gas industry.
A numerical model was developed and verified with
previously published experimental data. A detailed parametric
study is included and experimental design considerations are
discussed. Laser drilling has great potential to revolutionize
the oil and gas industry. Design considerations for a field
application are presented, with discussion on economical and
environmental impacts.
Rotary drilling, developed 100 years ago, is the basic method
used to reach gas and oil formations. Although this method
has been proven to be successful over the years, technological
advances have lead to the suggestion of a more efficient way
of drilling. Laser drilling can increase penetration rate by
greater than 100 times over the conventional rotary drilling
methods1 and the problems linked to dull drill bits and the
associated downtime due to this can be eliminated as well as
wastes created from drilling mud. The potentials of lasers for
drilling have been pointed out by many2-4. The development of
downhole laser drilling machines, laser-assisted drill bits,
laser-perforation tools, and sidetrack and directional laser
drilling devices are all possible with the advancement of laser
technology5. Lasers have already been applied in the mining

industry by enhancing the performance of tunneling machines

for about three decades.
Due to advancements in laser technology, some
experimental work on this topic has recently been undertaken.
Graves and OBrien6 conducted an experiment to determine
the feasibility of the US Armys MIRACL (Mid Infrared
Advanced Chemical Laser) for drilling gas wells. MIRACL is
a continuous wave laser with a wavelength of 3.8 m and a
power output of 600 to 1200 kW. The laser was directly
pointed at a slab of sandstone and a 2.5 inch deep hole was
created after only 4.5 seconds of exposure. This resulted in the
removal of 5.5 pounds of rock and an equivalent rate of
penetration (ROP) of 166 ft/hr. OBrien et al3 tested various
types of cores under various conditions with the US Air
Forces Chemical Oxygen-Iodine Laser (COIL) and found
some success. Batarseh7 utilized both MIRACL and COIL and
determined the effect of stresses and saturation on the
laser efficiency.
Modeling of laser drilling, cutting and scribing has been
addressed by a number of investigators. One-dimensional
drilling models8-11 and one-dimensional analytical heat
conduction with laser energy incident on a metal surface
model12 have been examined. Blackwell13 studied high
intensity energies focused on metal and concluded that a metal
explosion below the surface occurs due to the effects of
thermal stresses. He explained this explosive material removal
by stating that the maximum temperature (before the phase
change occurs at the exposed surface) lies inside the body
because of the heat loss to the surroundings. Modest and
others14-16 presented a numerical solution to the problem and
studied the effects of thermal stresses in ceramic.
This paper addresses the thermal process involved in laser
drilling of sandstone and limestone rocks as well as aluminum
and mild steel. A numerical simulation was developed based
on the fundamental heat transfer and fluid flow phenomena
(conduction, melting and vaporization) responsible for
material removal by laser drilling process.
Mathematical Formulation
In order to develop the mathematical formulation of laser
drilling process appropriate for the laser rock interaction, the
following assumptions were made17:

The laser beam is radially symmetric and is focused

on the surface of the rock. The energy flux arriving at
a particular location is independent of the distance
from the surface on which it impinges.

SPE 84844

The convective heat losses from the surface to the

environment are treated via an interfacial heat
transfer coefficient.
The radiation heat losses from the surface are treated
by considering the Stefan-Boltzman law.
Sandstone is assumed to be infinite in all inplane
directions. A null heat transfer condition is set up at
the lateral boundaries to the modeled domain.
Material removal is assumed to occur only by
volatilization, i.e. melt ejections are neglected.
All the thermo-physical properties are assumed to be
independent of temperature.
It is assumed that the pulse-on-time is much shorter
than the pulse-off-time and therefore all the plasma
generated will be extinguished between pulses.
The velocity of the liquid metal inside the hole is
neglected and the temperature distribution within the
liquid is assumed to be linear.
The incident laser energy is instantly converted into
heat at the target material (sandstone) and the laser
beam does not penetrate into the sandstone, i.e. the
sandstone is assumed to be opaque.

Figure (1) shows a schematic diagram of the laser drilling

(LD) process. A laser beam is incident upon the top surface of
the target (rock), which absorbs a fraction of the incident light
energy causing material melting followed by vaporization.
The physical process taking place during the material removal
are a combination of heat transfer, thermodynamics and fluid
flow with a free surface boundary at the liquid-vapor interface
(SLV) and a moving boundary condition at the liquid-solid
interface (SLS). This kind of problem along with its moving
boundary conditions is termed as the Stefan problem.
Laser-rock interaction can be divided into three main
stages and has beed described in detail by Agha et al.17.
First Stage: Preheating. This stage can be classified as a pure
conduction stage with a convective-radiative boundary
condition at the surface. The energy equation used during this
stage is the simple heat conduction equation;

2 T 1 T 2 T
k 2 +
+ q Laser
r r y 2
The thermal penetration depth was evaluated by;

= t
Second Stage: Melting. During this stage, the liquid-surface
temperature is below the saturation temperature and, therefore,
the liquid-vapor-interface velocity is zero. An energy balance
at the solid-liquid interface during this stage is expressed as;


K S y K L y 1 + r

h SL


Third Stage: Evaporation. Evaporation begins when the

liquid-surface temperature reaches the saturation temperature.
The mathematical equations involved in this stage are more
complicated because the vaporization, melting and conduction
equations have to be solved simultaneously. The energy
balance at the liquid-vapor interface can be expressed as;


abs q Laser ,i

(TSat Tm ) 1 + SSL
H Liq.

[h LV + C PL (TSat Tm )]

The thickness of the liquid layer is given by;
Laser Energy Transfer. There are three main processes by
which lasers transfer energy into a rock; Absorption,
Reflection and Scattering. In this paper, it is assumed that the
laser source is operated in pulse mode only and, therefore the
laser power is both a function of space and time. Thus;

q Laser (r, t ) = I(r ) T(t )

Where I(r) and T(t) are arbitrary functions of space and time,
respectively. The laser operating characteristics determines
these shape functions. The spatial intensity profile was
assumed to take the following Gaussian profile18;

2q 0
I(r ) =

R 2


The governing equations namely, Equation (1) through (3),

were solved numerically by using the Crank-Nicholson
method in which old and new time temperature values were
employed utilizing the iterative implicit method.
Results and Discussion
Verification of the numerical model was made by comparing
of previously published experimental results for sandstone,
and limestone3 as well as aluminum and mild steel11.
Although aluminum and mild steel would not be encountered
in the reservoir, the authors feel that it is important to verify
the model under a variety of cirucumstances. Figures 2 and 3
are comparisons between simulated and experimental result of
mild steel and aluminum. The results are based on a hole
developed from one-pulse of 1.5 ms. The numerical simulated
predicts the experimental results. It does however predict a

SPE 84844

slightly smaller hole than what was experienced. For practical

purposes, it is best to predict a smaller hole or greater energy
requirements than what would actually be required.
Figure 4 shows the comparison between the numerical and
experimental results for sandstone and limestone. The
numerical model predicts higher specific energy consumption
than the experimental results. This is most likely due to the
assumption that vaporization is the only method of removing
rock. Experimentally, at shallow depths and small exposure
times, melted rock may be forced out of the hole and thus
there would be less energy consumed to remove a unit of rock.
At greater depths, one can expect that all of the rock removal
will be due to vaporization. Figure 5 compares the lasing time
for the same drilled depths for the limestone and sandstone
samples. It is apparent that the sandstone takes more time
than the limestone to remove the same volume of rock. This
result reconfirms the results of Figure 4 since the
relationsoinship between specific energy and drilled depth is
inversely proportional. It is also interesting to note that the
model does not account for the effect of gas formation in the
hole due to vaporization. This formation would result in a
greater specific energy requirement. It is evident from the
results that gas formation is not a factor in this case. As lasing
time progresses it is expected that the specific energy
requirements would surpass the predicted ones if gas
formation is not accounted for.
The depth of the liquid layer created due to lasing is
depiced in Figures 6 and 7. It is evident that a Gaussian
profile is created during this process. Figure 6 shows the
numerical results for sandstone and limestone under 10
MW/cm2 of power. The sandstone melted layer is slightly less
than the limestone layer. Since the specific energy needed for
sandstone is greater than limestone, then the melted layer
should have a lesser depth throughout the melting time. Also,
with greater melted depth of limestone, melt ejection methods
such as waterjet in combination with lasers would accelerate
the rate of penetration more than with the sandstone sample.
As well, it is expected that the melted layer of rock around the
circumference of the hole will not have enough energy applied
to it to begin the vaporization process. In other words, there
will be a layer of rock around the hole that will never vaporize
and thus will solidify in a less porous and impermeable form.
It is also expected that some of the melted rock will be forced
into the surrounding formation. This layer will create a type
of sheath3 that has the potential to act as casing for the drilled
hole. This inturn may exclude casing used in traditional
drilling altogether, in this case, a huge cut in drilling cost
would be expected. Since the limestone has a greater melted
area, this sheath may be thicker affecting both the distance that
perforations can penetrate and should penetrate. Figure 7
illustrates the numerical predictions for sandstone and
limestone when 100 MW/cm2 of power is induced. The
results are very simililar to Figure 6. When comparing the
sandstone predictions, the depth of the melted section is very
close with the 100 MW/cm2 showing a slightly less value.
When comparing the limestone predictions, the depth of
melted layer is less for the 100 MW/cm2 results. Since the
power is greater, it can be assumed that the melted layer will
be less and vaporization will occure at a faster rate. As the
specific energy of sandstone is greater than that of limestone,

more energy will be dissipated in the rock and more laser

power is needed to vaporize the rock. Therefore, a greater
change in power would be needed to show a drastic change in
the melted depth.
Figure 8 compares the effect of lasing time on drilling
speed or ROP for 10 and 100 kW. As the lasing time
increases, the ROP decreases for both the 10 and 100 kW
cases. There is a greater decrease in the first 20 seconds
followed after which the ROP stabilizes somewhat. This is
especially true for the 10 kW case where the slope becomes
almost horizontal. It is expected that with an increase in time,
the 100 kW case will also show a horizontal slope. The initial
decrease in the slope is due to an increase in interaction of the
laser with the rock and and increase in the surface area of the
hole over time. With a greater interaction, more energy will
be lost to the rock and subsequently the ROP will decrease.
As time passes however, the surface area and rock interaction
becomes constant and the ROP stabilizes. Inversly, from
Figure 9 there is a greater increase in the depth of the hole
during the initial 20 seconds than there is after 20 seconds.
This is due to the previously mentioned reasons for ROP.
Increaseing the power from 10 kW to 100 kW, triples the hole
depth over 100 seconds.
The change in specific energy for increasing laser time
with different power ranges is shown in Figure 10. As the
lasing time increases, the specific energy requirements
increase. This is due to increased laser-rock interaction. As
well, from Figure 10 it is evident that as the power increased
the specific energy increases. This means that more energy is
utilized to remove one unit of rock. This correlation is very
important when trying to optimize the hole depth and mimize
the energy comsumption. The relationship shows that it is
more energy efficient and inturn less costly to use a lowerpowered laser.
Design Considerations
Two aspects of design considerations need to be addressed,
laboratory and field. Most importantly, the key to the success
of laser drilling is to determine how laboratory results can be
related to practical purposes.
Most laboratory studies
conducted to date are measured on a scale of centimeters and
seconds 3, 6, 7, 19. The challenge of petroleum engineers has
always been to develop laboratory results that are suitable for
scaling-up. For laser drilling, with an increase in lasing time,
one of the major factors that will effect the ROP is the
formation of gases in the hole. These gases may not only pose
a threat to ROP but my also be a health hazard as well.
Batarseh7 reported that gas that is formed due during lasing
has toxic potentials. Experimentally, longer lasing times need
to be examined to determine the extent of the gas formation.
Depending on this extent, technologies may have to be
developed to clean the hole of the gas, similar to the way
drilling mud is used today, and thus increase ROP. One
method that may be utilized for the elimination of this
problem is a waterjet. Longer lasing times lead to greater
lasing depths. Therefore future experimental studies should
attempt to use larger slabs of rock. Reservoir pressures and
temperatures also need to be considered. Increasing the
pressure exherted on the rock should have a decrease in the
ROP. Batarseh7 did study the effect of stresses during lasing

and found that stress does increase the specific energy

requirements. In this case though the stresses were not
quantified and therefore little conclusions can be made as to
the extent of the effect of reservoir pressure on lasing. A
detailed quantitative study needs to be conducted to better
understand this phenomenon. Incresing the temperuature of
the rock sample should have a decrease in ROP. Althought
the effect would most likely be slight; this area still needs to
be examined. As well, rock-fluid interaction has to be
understood. Previous studies show that saturated cores
increase the specific energy7. It was found that gases are
formed when lasing saturated cores. The amount of gas and
the composition needs to be determined. The degree to which
saturated rock will affect drilling into a reservoir has to be
determined. Most importantly, a combination of stresses,
temperatures and staturations should be studied
simulataneously. As well, the effect that laser has on the area
around the hole will have to be determined. There will be
some laser energy transferred in the form of heat to the
surrounding area. What effect this will have on the stability of
the area will have to be determined.
Implemenations of laser drilling into the field will require
a major change in the equipment that is used today.
Integration will be the key to maintaining suitable costs. Since
a sheath will be formed around the hole drilled, casing and
piping can be eliminated as well as all equipment associated
with this. Since the height of the derrick is dependant on the
length of the pipe it can greatly be reduced. The weight of the
laser will have to be supported by this equipment. Currently,
the rigs power system is used for the hoising system and the
fluid circulation system. With the implementation of drilling,
the power systems main function will be to operate the laser.
The hoisting system will still be utilized to move the laser into
position just above ground level but it is not expected that the
laser will be sent into the hole. The hoisting system will
especially be important during offshore operations since the
laser will have to be in close contact with the ocean floor.
Drilling mud will be eliminated since the laser vaporizes rock.
There will be little need for rotary systems since the drill bit
will be eliminated. Once the laser has entered the reservoir, it
most likely will vaporize the oil or gas that invades the hole,
thus blowout will no longer be a great threat. The well control
system can be modified to control the laser. A change in
specific energy requirements is a signal that the laser has
reached the reservoir. Implementation of lasers into the
drilling industry is a complex operation involving many more
factors than the ones discussed here.
The numerical model developed was successful in predicting
the experimental results. The numerical model was utilized to
develop predictions of specific energy, ROP, and melted layer
and this gives insight into future design factors. It is
interesting to note that drilling speed decreases over time and
inversely hole depth and specific energy increases over time.
As well, with an increase in power there is an increase in
specific energy. This must be kept in mind when designing a
laser drilling system. The numerical model presented does not
account for the vapor that will accumulate in the hole when
the hole depth becomes large. A model that predicts these

SPE 84844

effects will have to be developed in order to predict the

field conditions.
Many design considerations must be taken into account
before laser drilling can be accomplished. Numerical
modeling laks consideration of important processes taking
place during lasing rocks. More experimental investigation is
needed to fully understand the lasing operation and to enhance
the integrity of the numerical models.
Field applicatiuon is long way to go, although studying the
role of reservoir pressures, temperatures, and fluid saturations
increases the reliability of laser drilling. As well, field
equipment must be designed to meet the changes in
drilling requirements.
CP: specific heat (L2/ T2)
HLiq: thickness of liquid layer (L)
hLV: latent heat of vaporization, (M/T2L)
hSL:latent heat of melting, (M/T2L)
k: thermal conductivity (ML/ T3)
KS: thermal conductivity of solid (ML/ T3)
KL: thermal conductivity of liquid (ML/ T3)
qLaser: energy generation of laser source per unit volume
r: radial distance (L)
R: maximum radial distance (L)
SLV: thickness at liquid-vapor interface (L)
SSL: thickness at solid-liquid interface (L)
T: temperature ()
TS: temperature of solid ()
TL: temperature of liquid ()
t: time (T)
y: distance into the slab (L)
abs:absorption coefficient
: thermal diffusivity (L2/T)
: thermal penetration depth (L/T)
: density (M/L3)
TSat: saturation temperature ()
Tm: melting temperature ()
I(r): laser intensity
T(t): temperature
Funding of the research was possible through several grants
from the Federal Government of Canada and
petroleum industries.


Graves, R.M. and OBrien, D.G.: StarWars Laser Technology

for Drilling and Completing Gas Wells. Journal of Petroleum
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Determining the Benefits of StarWars Laser Technology for
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(July 1998)
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Laser Technology for Gas Drilling and Completions in the 21st
Century. SPE 56625, presented at the 1999 SPE Annual
Technical Conference, Houston Texas, Oct. 3-6.

SPE 84844






SI Metric Conversion Factors

inch X 2.54
ft X 3.048
mile X 1.609344
lbm X 4.535924
Btu (mean) X 1.05587
md X 9.869233
horsepower X 7.456999
Hp-hr/yd3 X 3.511212

E+ 00 = cm
E- 01 = m
E+ 00 = km
E- 01 = kg
E+ 03 = J
E-16 = m2
E- 01 = kW
E- 03 = kJ/cm3

SLV (y,r,t)




Fig 1 Physical model of Laser Drilling (LD) process

Radial Distance, m





D e p th , m


Islam, M.R. and Wellington, S.L.: Past, Present and Future

Petroleum Research. SPE 68799, presented at the 2001 SPE
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pp. 46-48.
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Applied to Drilling and Completing Gas Wells. SPE 49259,
presented at the 1998 SPE Annual Technical Conference and
Exhibition, New Orleans, LA., Sept 27-30.
Batarseh, S.: Application of Laser Technology in the Oil and
Gas Industry: An Analysis of High Power Laser-Rock
Interaction and its Effect of Altering Rock Properties and
Behavior. PhD Dissertation, Colorado School of Mines, 2001,
192 pgs.
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Islam, M.R.: Numerical Investigation of the Prospects of High
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C.B. and Xu, Z.: Laser Drilling: Determination of Energy
Required to Remove Rock, presented at the 2001 SPE Annual
Technical Meeting and Dinner, New Orleans, LA, Sept. 30
Oct. 3.

Numerical Study
Ref. [11]


exp. Data, Ref.



Current Study

Fig. 2 Comparison of numerical and experimental studies
for Aluminum

Radial Distance, m





Depth, m



Numerical Study
Ref. [11]
exp. Data, Ref.
Current Study


Fig. 3 Comparison of numerical and experimental studies for

Mild Steel

SPE 84844







SSL (m)










Specific Energy, kJ/cm




L im esto n e

S an d sto n e

at the melting
(start of melting)

at the evap. time

(just before evap.
takes place)




Fig. 4 - Comparison between the predicted specific energy

consumption and that obtained experimentally17

Fig. 7 - Liquid layer thickness in sandstone and limestone for 100

MW/cm Laser Power

Drilling speed, 10 kW

Drilling speed, 100 kW



Drilling speed (cm/sec)

lasing tim e (seconds)







Fig. 5 Comparison of numerical and experimental studies for 5

seconds of lasing with limestone and 8 seconds with sandstone



Depth, 10 kW




Fig 8 The effect of lasing time on drilling speed


Lasing time (seconds)

Depth, 100 kW



Depth (cm)


SSL (m)


at the evap. time

(just before Evap.
takes place)

at the melting time

(start of melting)




Fig. 6 - Liquid layer thickness in sandstone and limestone for 10
MW/cm Laser Power




Lasing Time (seconds)

Fig 9 The effect of lasing time on depth



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Power = 50 kW/cm2


SE (kJ/cm3)










Lasing Time (sec)



Fig. 10 - Variation of specific energy with lasing time under

different incident laser power intensity -- for sandstone