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Bits are designed to induce rock failure. Because rock failure can occur in different ways, depending
on the formation and on downhole conditions, there are a large number of design variations among
roller cone and fixed cutter bits. To evaluate these design variations and select a bit, we first need a
basic understanding of how rocks fail and how formation conditions affect drilling performance.

The Stress-Strain Relationship

Stress is the force applied to a unit area of material. An analysis of the stresses acting on a particular
object can become quite involved. For this discussion, however, we can define three basic
components of stress:

o compressive stress (a pushing or squeezing force)

o tensile stress (a pulling or elongating force)
o shear stress (a slicing or cleaving force).
Strain is the deformation that a material experiences in response to an applied stress. This
deformation may take one of two forms, depending on the nature of the material and the magnitude of
the applied stress:

Elastic: If the applied stress is below the elastic limit of the material, the material
returns to its original shape and size once the stress is removed.)

Plastic: If the applied stress exceeds the material's elastic limit, the material
experiences permanent deformation; further stress increases result in additional

Above a certain stress limit, a material will rupture, or break. If it ruptures before significant plastic
deformation occurs, it is described as brittle. If it ruptures only after experiencing significant plastic
deformation, it is considered ductile. Under different conditions, the same material may exhibit either
brittle or ductile behavior.

Stress Response in Sedimentary Rocks

At atmospheric pressure, sedimentary rocks are normally brittle. They become ductile under high
confining stress if there is no communication between the internal rock pore pressure and the
surrounding pressure medium.
Figure 1 and Figure 2, comparing the stress/strain plots of Mancos shale and rock salt, respectively,
illustrate this brittle/plastic transition and show some marked differences in stress response between
the two materials. In each case, stress is plotted on the y-axis in psi, and strain is plotted on the x-axis
as a percentage of the original sample length.

Figure 1

Figure 2

For the Mancos shale:

o At zero (i.e., atmospheric) confining pressure, the shale experienced brittle

failure at 7,000 psi after being compressed approximately 1%;
o At 1,000 psi confining pressure, the shale experienced brittle failure at
9,000 psi axial stress after being compressed 2.5%;
o At 2,000 psi confining pressure, the shale became completely ductile
(plastic) and much stronger. It yielded (permanently deformed) at 12,000
psi axial stress after being compressed 6%. It then required the same
axial compressive stress to continuously compress the shale sample
about 20%, which was the limit of the test apparatus;
o Between 4,000 psi and 6,000 psi confining pressure, the shale became
significantly stronger, requiring much higher levels of axial stress to initiate
yield. At 6,000 psi, it required 20,500 psi of axial stress for the rock to

Rock salt exhibits the same transition from brittle to plastic failure, but at much lower levels of
confining stress it becomes completely ductile and will flow at confining pressures of 800 psi and
Figure 3 (zero confining stress) and Figure 4 (3000 psi confining stress) illustrate the stress/strain
behavior of a cylindrical sample of porous limestone.

Figure 3

Figure 4

o As shown, the sample was placed in a testing chamber and subjected to

hydraulic compression.
o At zero confining pressure (i.e., atmospheric conditions), the rock
experienced brittle fracture at 12,000 psi compressive stress, with less
than 1% strain.
Another limestone sample, identical to the first, was placed in the chamber and subjected to 3000 psi
confining pressure. The compressive stress was raised to 24,000 psi with no rock fractures; the
sample experienced about a 12% length deformation, changing to a permanent "barrel" shape.
Experiments like these give some insight into the condition of rock in situ, or downhole, and how it
affects drilling.

Wellbore Pressure Effects

The experiments summarized above show that confining pressure has a significant effect on rock
behavior. To translate this observation into practical terms, we need to apply these laboratory
conditions to the wellbore.
The confining pressure at the bottom of a wellbore is equal to the difference between the pressure
exerted by the column of drilling fluid in the hole and the pore pressure, or internal pressure, of the
rock. This quantity is commonly expressed as differential pressure, or P.

The value of P defines the hole condition as underbalanced, balanced or overbalanced ( Figure 5 ).
Each of these hole conditions, together with temperature and rate of deformation, affects rock failure
mechanisms, which in turn affect penetration rate.

Figure 5

Penetration rate is also affected by a pressure-related phenomenon known as chip hold-down. Chip
hold-down occurs when a mud filter cake or fine solids block fractures produced by the bit. This
prevents the liquid phase of the mud from invading the fractures, and results in a positive pressure
differential across the top surface of the chip. The hold-down force is equal to the area of the chip
times the differential pressure ( Figure 6 ).

Figure 6

Underbalanced Condition
If the pressure exerted by the fluid column is less than the pore pressure of the formation, the
differential pressure is less than zero, and the well is being drilled in an underbalanced condition.
This condition most often occurs when drilling with air, fresh water or muds weighing less than 8.6
In underbalanced drilling, the rock exhibits brittle behavior it has a relatively low failure strength
and fractures very easily. Because the rock surface is in tension, it virtually explodes under the
compressive loads of the bit. There is no downward pressure to promote chip hold-down, and so
there is very little re grinding of already-drilled cuttings. This helps attain very high rates of
Although its benefits are evident, underbalanced drilling is feasible only in areas where formation
fluids can be easily controlled and there is no danger of a blowout.

Balanced Condition
When the pressure of the fluid column is equal to the pore pressure, the hole is in
a balanced condition. This condition generally occurs when drilling with brine water or mud weighing
8.6 lb/gal.
Under balanced conditions, the rock is still in the brittle state and fractures relatively easily. The
bottom of the hole is in pressure equilibrium, so there is minimal stress concentration present to either
enhance or slow penetration rates. Penetration rates are generally slower than those experienced in

an underbalanced drilling, because there is some chip hold-down resulting from cohesive forces
between the rock cuttings, along with interference due to fluid viscosity.
Balanced drilling, like underbalanced drilling, presents blowout risks, and is an option only when there
is no likelihood of unexpected increases in formation pressure.

Overbalanced Condition
In overbalanced drilling, the pressure of the mud column exceeds the formation pore pressure. In
areas with normal pressure gradients, this condition occurs when the mud weight exceeds 8.6 ppg.
For safety reasons, overbalanced drilling is normal practice in most areas.
As the differential pressure increases in an overbalanced hole, the rock below the bit becomes
increasingly strong and ductile. The hole bottom is in a state of compression, thus retarding fracture
propagation caused by the bit. These factors, along with a high degree of chip hold-down, tend to
slow penetration rates. If the differential pressure is too high, the mud can fracture the formation,
resulting in lost circulation and possibly a blowout.
Differential pressures ranging from 2,000 to 6,000 psi are not uncommon in south Louisiana, south
Texas, the North Sea, the Middle East and other deep basins. The induced rock strength and large
chip hold-down forces created by these high differential pressures can make roller cone bits drill very
slowly in rocks that would normally be soft and easily drilled. A plot of penetration rate versus
differential pressure (Figure 7 ) shows the dramatic effect that increasing overbalance has on drilling

Figure 7

Rock sample:
Circulation rate:

Mancos shale
Water-base, 10 lb/gal
320 GPM

Bits used:

" Smith F2

Bit nozzles:

Three (3),
Weight on bit:
35,000 lb
Rotary rpm:
The only condition that changed during this experiment was the differential pressure, which was 700
psi for the first set of bit runs, 1,200 psi for the second set of bit runs and 2,500 psi for the third set of
bit runs. Table 1 and Figure 8 summarize the test results.

Table 1. Effect of Differential Pressure on Bit Performance

Test No.







0 - 0.5

Bottom-hole Pattern ( Figure 8)

Good rock breakage and full bottomhole coverage with good interconnection of
tooth craters: nominal hole diameter = 7


Poor rock breakage, badly tracking pattern; no tooth-crater interaction; hole

somewhat oval-shaped: major diameter = 8


Extremely poor rock breakage with gyrating/tracking pattern. Oval-shaped; major

diameter = 8


Figure 8

Note that with all other conditions held constant, the increase in differential pressure resulted in
dramatically reduced penetration rates and increased chip hold-down.
Normal drilling practice calls for maintaining mud weight 0.2 to 0.4 lb/gal higher than the equivalent
mud weight of the formation. While this practice provides a safety factor for well control, it can also
result in high differential pressures ( Figure 9 ) which, in turn, can severely limit drilling rates.

Figure 9

For example, using an 11 lb/gal mud at 14,000 feet in a well with a normal pressure gradient results in
a differential pressure of 1,700 psi, which places most shales and evaporites, as well as some
sandstones, into the plastic region. This results in much lower penetration rates than could be
attained in shallower formations with similar lithology.
A basic awareness of rock failure mechanisms and the effects of formation conditions allows us to
look more closely at the design features of roller cone and fixed cutter bits.