No. 1, 2011

Alexander Matveichuk ,
Ph. D. (History), Member, Russian Academy of Natural Sciences


The history of turbodrilling began with a Russian engineers invention

Among the technical breakthroughs in the world oil industry in the 1920s, a special place is held by the invention in 1922 of the reduction-geared, single-stage downhole turbodrill motor by the Russian engineer Matvey Kapelyushnikov, which opened the way for the subsequent mass introduction of turbodrilling in the industry.

The drumbeat rhythm of the first five-year plan

The rapid implementation of the government program for the technical reequipping of the USSR's oil industry yielded its first visible results as early as the mid-1920s. In drilling technology, the rod-tool percussion method had been replaced by the more productive technique of rotary drilling. By 1928-29, rotary drilling had become the undisputed champion of the domestic oil industry, finding 86.7% application in Baku and 73.2% in Grozny. Changes in drilling technology led to a more than tenfold increase in the speed of drilling. The production cost of drilling had come down as well. In the "American" method of reinforcing wells, fewer casing pipes were used than in the old percussion method. Well design was made considerably lighter, the initial diameter was now smaller, and the number of pipe strings was reduced.

As the American experience was being assimilated on Soviet oil fields, however, tests had already begun of a new method for drilling wells that was destined to mark the opening of a new era in the development of the oil industry. Credit for this achievement goes to the talented Russian engineer Matvey Kapelyushnikov (1886-1959). In 1914, he graduated from the mechanical department of Tomsk Technological Institute and then worked as a designer at the Baku Society of Russian Oilmen. In May of 1920, he was appointed chief engineer at one of Baku's refineries.

At the beginning he appreciated the rotary drill that had replaced the archaic rod-tool percussion method on the oil fields of the Apsheron Peninsula. Yet he quickly put his finger on a major shortcoming and substantial problem of this method. In rotary drilling, the rotor motor that rotates the drilling column with a bit at the end is located on the surface. If the length of the drilling column is considerable, all of its weight has to be rotated just to transmit the rotary motion to the little bit boring through the rock at a great depth. The upshot is that only a small amount of the expended energy of rotation goes toward useful work, and a great deal of it is wasted uselessly. The pipes themselves rotate, their external walls abrade on the rock of the well's walls, and the internal walls of the pipes are scoured by the sand that is always present in the clayey drilling fluid. The drilling pipes therefore wear out quickly; they break and buckle, and require repeated replacement.

Kapelyushnikov began to think about how it might become possible to escape from this technological dead end. His thorough knowledge of the scientific and technical literature pointed him in the right direction: he had to construct a reliable, high-performance downhole motor.

On the road to success

Kapelyushnikov's intense efforts produced their long-awaited result in 1922: the problem of creating a workable downhole motor - a reduction-geared turbodrill - had been solved for the first time in world engineering. On September 26, 1922, he applied to Moscow to patent his invention.

The first test model of Kapelyushnikov's turbodrill weighed around one metric ton. The motor, a single-cycle turbine powered by drilling fluid pumped in through cavities in the drilling pipe, was placed inside a cylindrical housing. The turbine was connected to the bit by a reduction gear used to lower the number of the bit's revolutions.

In the summer of 1923, the first turbodrill prototype tests were held on the water, from the dock of the former Baku Petroleum Society. The turbodrill was then tested at one of the wells of the Surakhany oil field. The next year, the first well in the world with a depth of around 600 meters was drilled with Kapelyushnikov's turbodrill on the Surakhany oil field.

In principle, the test of Kapelyushnikov's downhole motor model confirmed its workability. The advantages of the turbodrill were immediately obvious to oil engineers: during drilling, only the bit rotated. The heavy column of pipes did not rotate, and moved along the walls of the well only as it grew deeper. It turned out that it was considerably easier to bore to a great depth with the turbodrill, since there was no friction between the pipes and the walls of the well, and there were far fewer pipe accidents than in standard rotary drilling.

With the support of Azerbaijan's Party leader Sergey Kirov, a large order for the manufacture of a consignment of turbodrills was placed at the Maltsev Machine Plant. The turbodrills were produced in four standard sizes, from 4 ¾ inches to 11 inches, based on the outer diameter of the housing.

At the same time, tests showed that the clear advantages of Kapelyushnikov's turbodrill over rotary drilling were dramatically reduced, since the turbodrill's efficient operation was limited to only a few hours, while the average commercial speed of turbine drilling lagged behind that of rotary drilling under identical conditions. The weakest links in the turbodrill's original design were the turbine and the reduction gear. The turbine could operate for only a few hours, since the working parts of the reduction gear were worn badly by the great unit pressure and the drilling fluid entering the motor's gear casing, requiring that they be replaced more often.

A special design bureau for turbine drilling, headed by Kapelyushnikov, was set up at the Azneft Trust. Its technicians worked enthusiastically to perfect the turbodrill's design. The reactive turbine was soon replaced with an active one, a planetary multi-stage reduction gear substituted for the earlier system, and the sealing and support elements were improved.

Soviet turbodrill replaces the American system

The notice that a patent had been issued in the name of Engineer Matvey Kapelyushnikov was published in the central Soviet press on August 31, 1925, where it was noted that his patent would be considered valid for a period of 15 years, starting from September 15, 1924.

It is interesting that as early as October 1923, Kapelyushnikov filed for a patent in Great Britain. His application was approved by the British patent office.

The invention of a turbodrill in the Soviet Union soon attracted the attention of the American engineering community. In 1928, the American journal Petroleum requested that Kapelyushnikov send them a description of his invention and invited him to deliver a report on the turbodrill at the World Exhibition of Oil Industry Equipment in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1929.

At the same time, the huge oil companies Standard Oil of New York and Texaco, Inc. submitted a request to the directors of AMTORG to demonstrate on American oil fields how wells were bored with the turbodrill.

The Soviet government agreed to their request and a Soviet drilling team, led by Kapelyushnikov himself, was sent to the United States with two reduction-geared turbodrills.

In the United States, Kapelyushnikov presented several reports on the operating principles of his turbodrill, and a demonstration of drilling with one of the downhole motors they had brought with them was given in Earlsborough, Texas, on a field of the Texas Oil Co.

As further demonstrations were held in the United States over the course of almost two years, the Soviet team successfully passed the difficult examination conducted by experienced and demanding American drilling experts.

The road to a new turbodrill

The results from the two years of the Kapelyushnikov team's work at American oil fields generally made a huge impression on the world's business and engineering communities. A number of foreign firms in countries other than the United States applied to the Soviet trade representatives (and directly to Kapelyushnikov himself) with offers to buy either the invention or the license to it. The Soviet government, however, preferred to make independent efforts to perfect the turbodrill, insisting on its right as the exclusive user. This arbitrary decision, however, was hardly justified, since in those years there were no rolling drill bits in the Soviet Union; neither were there any powerful pumps, or the means for treating the clayey drilling fluid. Under conditions like these, the introduction of turbine drilling, which over the next nine years was persistently enforced under the personal direction of Sergey Kirov, the Party leader of Azerbaijan, still could yield no quick and desireable results.

The turbodrill was first used at the Grozny oil fields in 1928, in the New Region sector. In its production and financial plan for 1928/29, the Grozneft trust noted: "in the 1927/28 operating year, 18,478.6 meters were drilled by the rotary method in Novogroznensk region. Of these, 483.7 were bored with turbine drilling."

If the share of turbine drilling in 1927 was as much as 1.1% of all drilling nationwide, by 1932 it had risen to only 2%.

At the same time, it should be emphasized that Kapelyushnikov's turbodrill system obviously pointed the way toward the subsequent solving of complicated engineering problems on the road to creating the commercial version of the turbodrill manufactured in 1934 in the form of a multistage gearless turbodrill created by a design team of Soviet engineers headed by the talented inventor Pyotr Shumilov. The speed of the drill bit reached 600 revolutions a minute, and the turbine blades' resistance to wear was 40-50 times higher than before as a result of reducing the flow rate of fluid in the turbodrill itself. In 1936, a turbodrill of a new design successfully underwent industrial tests. In 1940, the team produced a new multistage turbine equipped with a strengthened single-stage reduction gear that generated the number of revolutions required for drilling directly on the axle and was capable of drilling through all types of rock encountered in the production operations.

This allowed them not only to change the negative attitude of drilling experts to downhole motors, but to bring the overwhelming majority of the industry's drilling efforts in the Soviet Union over to turbine drilling shortly after the Second World War.

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Oil of Russia, No. 1, 2011
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