NEW YORK —
At the tip of every oil or gas drill is a rotating mouth of sharp teeth that chews through rock. In the past, these drill bits could only dig straight down. Now they are agile enough to find and follow narrow horizontal seams of rock.
The drilling-services company Baker Hughes has designed a bit that can change directions underground, without having to be drawn back up to the surface, reducing drilling time by as much as 40 percent.
Behind the drill bit, attached to a long line of steel known as the “drill string,” is an array of sensors. The sensors bombard rock with subatomic particles and measure the gamma radiation that bounces back. They assess how easily electricity flows through the rock and underground fluids. They analyze the magnetism of the rock and how it vibrates — both up and down and side to side — while drilling.
“To the layman, it looks like dumb iron, but you’d be shocked about what’s inside,” says Art Soucy, president of global products and services at Baker Hughes.
All this information is sent to engineers via fiber-optic cables. They run the information through supercomputers as powerful as 30,000 laptops to create a picture of the earth thousands of feet below the surface.
The people analyzing this data — and even directing the drill bits — are often sitting hundreds of miles away. Shell’s Pennsylvania drilling operations are directed from a center in Houston, where experienced drillers monitor the progress at several sites across the country from a single room.
And when the drilling is done, the rig itself can “walk” a hundred feet or so to another location and start drilling again. In the past, rigs had to be taken down and reassembled, which could take days. New rigs are built on sliding “shoes” that allow hydraulic lifts to shuffle the rig forward in short steps.