Diamond drill bits add efficiency and cut costs for industry

James Fenton
The Daily Times

Using the same technology used in guided missiles, newer drill bits fashioned with synthetic diamonds and sensors have optimized operations in the Mancos play.

WPX Energy uses polycrystalline diamond cutter, or PDC, drill bits at its wells in the Lybrook area.

A bit’s sensors relay information to drilling operators that help keep the bit in the sandy part of the play, which is about a mile underground and is the productive part of the play.

WPX Energy spokeswoman Susan Alvillar said the technology has improved drilling operations. The company has had three drilling rigs this year in the San Juan Basin, although they’re down to two now.

“These are industrial grade diamonds,” Alvillar said. “The actual design (is) made by the company Baker Hughes, it was Howard Hughes’ grandfather who did the original design of this particular bit.”

The primary benefit of the bit is speed, Alvillar said.

“The engineering advances have allowed us to drill the wells faster,” she said. “We have increased our ROP, or rate of penetration, over time to allow us to set a record drilling time of 7.9 days for a well of 11,082 feet. The faster drilling times per well mean the bit costs (they are rented) are less, therefore the well cost is reduced.”

Billy Sewell, drilling manager for Aztec Well Service, said the bit is both strong and offers precision.

“PDC bits have revolutionized the industry,” Sewell said. “This is something that’s brand new and if we’re having a hard time going from vertical to horizontal, this bit gives us the best of both worlds. It gives us the controllability and steer-ability of a roller-cone and penetration rates of PDC bits. This gives us the best of both worlds.”

Traditional bits would have three cones, which the cutting teeth rotate on, and no parts. A PDC bit has sensors that can relay data on its precise location to the drilling engineer at all times during operations.

Previous steel bits worked with pressure using carbide cutters that crushed rock underground, but wear and tear was greater and there were limits to the duration and depth the bit could manage in a single use.

“A PDC, as long as you have the right cutter size and the right formation, you don’t really put very much weight on them because they shave the formation,” he said.

Sewell said the bit technology has reduced drilling time, saving money for the companies that use them.

“It would take us 100-plus days, if not more, to drill a well,” Sewell said. “Going from a roller cone to a PDC, we can drill in eight days. That’s how big it has been for the industry.”

The bits come in two designs, the traditional steel body shell and a “matrix” body that is a composite material of tungsten carbide grains and steel. Of the two, the matrix drill bit has diamond grit in its design and is being put to use more often in WPX operations.

Alvillar said the matrix design reduces “tripping,” which involves changing out drilling pipe.

“We are also able for the most part to sustain the bit longer in the hole with improved design,” she said. “That means we are not ‘tripping’ or removing the drill pipe to change the bit as often. Tripping means we are not drilling ahead, but the rig still costs us time and money. Tripping also poses a lot more moving parts, and required manpower. Thus, fewer hazards for the workers.”

WPX Energy rents the bits on a flat-rate charge. They can also be rented by the foot.

Because PDC bits can run 20 times the cost of a milled-tooth bit — the price tag for a single PDC drill bit can cost between $30,000 and $80,000 — but Randy VanDenBerg, district operations manager of WPX Energy’s San Juan Basin Operations, said the bits have meant huge cost savings and quicker drill times.

“This is really giving us the ability to drill these wells economically,” VanDenBerg said. “2005 is when we started feeling comfortable moving from a roller cone to a PDC. At that point everybody believed in the roller cones. Just like any industry, they’re getting better and better. Cutter technology has gone from, ‘we can drill 1,000 feet’ to ‘we can drill an entire well bore.’ It’s amazing what competition does.”

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and . Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.