The Wide World of Drilling Rigs: From tiny tricones to massive drill pipes

The wide variety of minerals, fuels, and rare resources found under the ground has long inspired humans to come up with new and ingenious ways to explore below the Earth’s surface. Just as different drill bits such as tricones are used depending according to the extraction requirements, different kinds of drilling rigs are used depending on the job at hand as well. Although there have been impressive drilling achievements in the days before combustion engines or tricones (the ancient Chinese could drill almost 5000 feet with bamboo drills and hard labor), we’ll be focusing on contemporary methods of drilling here.

How Various Rigs Power the Tricone Drill Bit

Every rig obviously requires power; tricones don’t drill on their own and oxen keep trying to unionize. Drill rigs are often classified by the type of power used to run the drill and keep the tricones spinning.

Mechanical Drilling: Good old fashioned mechanical drilling uses its own engines (generally diesel) to create power to send to the tricones or other bits in a way similar to many large trucks. It will generate torque, and use clutches and transmissions to control the amount of power being sent to the drill and the speed of the tricones or other drill bits.

Electric Drilling: This method uses electric motors to power major items of machinery on the rig, such as tricones or other drill bits. Electric motors have advantages in that they don’t need clutch or transmissions systems, making it easier to deliver a specific RPM (rotations per minute) to the tricones. Power still must still be generated somehow, and in the vast majority of cases this will be with internal combustion engine generators

Hydraulic Drilling: Hydraulic rotary drilling is the natural home of tricones and oil drilling. Hydraulic drills allow for much more complicated or intricate drill bits, like tricones, to reach greater depths. This is due to the ability to use liquids to clean, lubricate and cool the tricones or other drill bits. Using hollow drill pipes allows special “drilling muds” to be blasted down the length of the hole all the way to the tricones at the tip of the drill pipe. This also allows for debris to be blasted away from the tricones and back towards the surface, keeping the bore hole clear. The combination of ingenious inventions from barite infused drilling muds, to TCI (tungsten carbide inserts) for the tricones, to hollow drill pipes allow this to be one of the most efficient drilling methods around; it is regularly used to go thousands of meters below the Earth’s surface.

Pneumatic Drilling: This is the air-based cousin of Hydraulic drilling. Pneumatic drills use air to create a zone of differential pressure which draws debris away from the tricones or drill bits and up a long hollow tube inside the drill pipe. Water or available drilling mud is still used to clean the tricones and prevent wear. Air compressors are usually part of the rig itself, but additional compressors can be hooked up from support vehicles if required.


What’s Next for Drill Rigs and Tricone Technology?

Modern rigs are a curious mix between technologies that have existed for over a hundred years (tricones and drill pipes) and new innovations that make those technologies work better (lubricating drilling mud for the tricones, or air vortexes for the drill pipes). The old steam rigs are what allowed new technologies like tricones to be developed at all, but now steam rigs are bygone relics of a more dangerous time.

The growing industrial diamond industry is leading to new drill bits and new innovations for existing tricones, and it’s only a matter of time until the rig technologies themselves evolve to take advantage of the newest drill bits being developed. Can’t wait to see what they come up with next? Neither can we.


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