PDC Drill Bit 101: What is a Polycrystalline Diamond Compact Drill Bit?


At the end of every drill string lies the most important part – the drill bit. The drill bit consists of man-made diamond cutters, blades, nozzles, and a bit body. Bit selection is crucial and has a vast impact on the overall cost of well construction operations. Today, we want to highlight the most dominant drill bit in the oil and gas industry, the PDC bit. It will focus mainly on the design principals that need to be determined by engineers and designers at Ulterra Drilling Technologies.

What is a Polycrystalline Diamond Compact Drill Bit?

The PDC bit is named after the Polycrystalline Diamond Compact cutting element that shears through the rock in order to drill the well.

There are four main parts to become familiar with when it comes to a drill bit:

  1. the cutters
  2. cutting structure,
  3. the blades,
  4. and the bit body.

Polycrystalline Diamond Compact cutters are typically cylindrical in shape with a thin, man-made, diamond layer on top of a tungsten carbide substrate. These cutters must remain intact to drive the bit’s performance and ensure it functions reliably, and are arranged into a 3D geometry called the cutting structure.

The cutting structure may seem simple, but it is commonly the most intricate part of a PDC bit design.
Typically, the cutters are aligned in rows in order to facilitate better cleaning of the rock cuttings. Each row sits along the top of a blade which protrudes from the bit body, supporting the cutting structure and holding it in place while effectively connecting the cutting structure to the end of the drill string.

In between the blades are junk slots which act as pathways for the drilling fluid to wash cuttings away from the bit face as it drills. The bit body consists of combinations of tungsten carbide matrix materials and steel, just depending on how much tungsten carbide is used and how they are manufactured.

Matrix PDC bit bodies are made of steel at the pin connection and transition to a tungsten carbide-composite material on the outer surfaces. Steel PDC bit bodies are made from raw steel and then coated with hard facing material to increase erosion resistance. Polycrystalline Diamond Compact bits can be designed with a nearly infinite combination of variables, and modified per drilling application.

The bit design and performance requirements are spelled out by the customer and then it is constructed and tweaked by engineers and designers to optimize performance.

There are a lot of factors that must be taken into consideration when designing the drill bit. The most important external factor of design is the size of the wellbore that needs to be drilled, which can be anything from 2 ½” to 36” (6cm to 90cm) in diameter. Other factors are more tailored to its desired use, we have to consider things like the rock and formation type, the operating environment, the capabilities of the other drilling equipment, and the angle of the wellbore.

How is a PDC Bit Designed?

To increase the potential for maximum drilling speed, or rate of penetration (ROP), there are quite a few features that must be considered on a per-bit basis.

Before the designing starts, we need a thorough understanding of the drilling application ranging from the drilling rig capabilities, RPM, weight on bit (WOB), flow rate, drilling tools in the BHA, the rock formation strength and hardness, and the distance drilled.

Once this information is gathered and analyzed, Ulterra takes into account previous applications that were similar and how the bits performed. They use this empirical data and all external factors to create the design and performance expectation before proceeding with the drill bit design portion.

During the design stage, the complete properties of the drill bit are created and adjusted such as cutter size, cutter orientation, cutter density, and nozzle placement. When designing the bit, it is important to let external factors and the specifics of the application guide the design.

The formation type, hardness, drilling parameters, and any directional aspects have a far greater influence on the success of the overall drilling project. It is also important to recognize that there are a lot of similarities in the manufacturing process regardless of the individual design.

There are five main design principals; cutting structure, PDC cutter type, bit body geometry, hydraulics, and body material.

 

Five Main PDC Bit Design Variables:

  1. Cutting Structure

The cutting structure is the part of the drill bit that actively engages the formation and the holistic layout of the active Polycrystalline Diamond Compact cutters in 3D space. The main variables that are taken into consideration when designing a PDC drill bit are the number of cutters, size, and cutter orientation.

Like the rest of the design variables, the drilling application determines the quantity and size of the PDC cutters, also known as the diamond volume. A lower diamond volume provides faster ROP for given WOB, a more responsive reaction to WOB adjustment, more torque for the rig, and low relative abrasion resistance. A higher diamond volume value provides slower ROP for a given WOB, the ability to withstand higher forces before damage occurs, less torque response for the rig, and higher abrasion resistance.

The cutters in the center of the bit are responsible for the aggressiveness of a PDC bit. Large cutters enable complete coverage with a lower cutter quantity as desired. These lower cutter counts increase bit aggressiveness and torque response. Smaller cutters allow for denser packing to increase cutter quantity as desired. Higher cutter counts increase durability and abrasion resistance and smaller cutters have less exposure.

  1. PDC Cutter Type

When referring to the cutter type, I’m referring to the makeup of the specific material of the diamond table itself, the diamond grit that is used, and the methods used to manufacture the cutters. A Polycrystalline Diamond Compact is a highly engineered part and all of these aspects are tightly controlled. PDC cutters consist of two bonded pieces – the polycrystalline diamond compact itself and a tungsten carbide substrate. Polycrystalline Diamond is a cluster of microscopic single crystal diamonds bonded together with a random orientation. The multiple orientations of the crystals in the lattice structures create grain boundaries which significantly increase its fracture toughness. Modern PDC cutters contain a mix of mesh diamond sizes to optimize packing density and void volume.

The exact construction, materials, and properties of the PDC cutter used in a design will depend on the properties required for the application. Typically the engineer must balance between the resistance to abrasive wear and the ability to withstand impact damage. Ulterra custom selects the type of cutter for each individual application depending on what performance is needed.

 

  1. Bit Body Geometry

The geometry of the bit is determined by factors such as the shape of the blades, the configuration of the gage area, the sizes of the flow paths, and all other factors pertaining to the shapes and sizes of the bit. The geometry is determined by external variables like the flow rate, ROP, conditions of the mud, etc. Different size blades, nozzle placements, number of blades all have drastic influences on drilling operations. Typically for a bit that has low diamond volume, the shoulder of the profile is shorter and more aggressive; and for a bit that has a high diamond volume, the shoulder area is longer. A longer bit shoulder will allow for more PDC cutters and increased diamond volume, more abrasion resistance, and less aggression. A shorter bit shoulder has fewer cutters, lower diamond volume, more aggression vertically and directionally, but less durable to abrasive wear.

The geometry of the bit is also determined by the blade count. The blades that extend to the center of the bit are called primary blades, and the blades that start closer to the outside of the bit are called secondary blades. In the center of the bit body profile is the cone area, which is important for keeping the bit stable while also affecting performance. A deeper cone angle allows for increased diamond volume, enhanced bit stability and a bit that is less prone to deviation from the required angle. A shallow cone angle allows for a more aggressive diamond volume, more efficient WOB transfer, and improved directional response.

  1. Hydraulics

The flow of drilling fluid through and over the PDC bit, known as the hydraulics, is incredibly important to the performance of the bit. The fluid flow cleans and cools the cutting structure while also evacuating drilled rock cuttings away from the bit face. To optimize bit hydraulics, changing the nozzle/port count, placement, size, and the vector will improve cuttings evacuation, help to cool the Polycrystalline Diamond Compact cutters, reduce bit erosion, and widen or narrow total flow area (TFA) for pressure concerns.

Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD), a software simulation package that uses numerical analysis and algorithms, is used to model and optimize the flow and it can completely change the capabilities of the bit. CFD allows Ulterra to visualize the impact that nozzle orientation and placement may have on flow paths, erosion, cleaning the bit, etc. A typical bit will have one nozzle for each blade so that the cutting structure is cooled and cleaned as efficiently as possible. On smaller PDC bits there may not be enough space for this many nozzles but the modeling and design ensure that no part of the bit is “starved” of fluid.

  1. PDC Bit Body Material: Matrix vs. Steel

Matrix body bits are made from a tungsten carbide alloy, which provides improved resistance to abrasive formation wear and fluid erosion. These bodies can withstand relatively high compression loads and it can take formation wear and tear. Properties of a matrix blade, such as the height of the blade, are limited due to the lower impact toughness compared with steel since the material is relatively brittle. Typically, matrix style bodies are preferred for environments that have higher chances for body erosion.

Steel body bits are made of a high alloy steel. These bits can withstand high impact and are often designed with higher blade stand-off which gives more space for fluid and cuttings removal which can increase ROP potential. Steel is relatively soft and without protective features, such as hard facing material, would quickly fail due to abrasion and fluid erosion. Steel body material properties and manufacturing capabilities allow for complex bit profiles and hydraulic designs. The size of the blade that’s constructed from steel allows it to be larger because of its tough and ductile properties. Considering these properties, Ulterra is able to create geometry using steel that we normally wouldn’t be able to construct using matrix. We use these properties to our advantage to construct drill bits that deliver better performance.

How are external factors considered in PDC drill bit design?

Using the data of the conditions of external factors, the design and engineering team can manufacture the bit accordingly to suit the external environment and needs of the drilling operation. The properties of the rock that are being drilled into are a primary factor that determines the design of the bit. There are a variety of different rock types: such as limestone, sandstone, shale, etc. These consist of different minerals and structures that respond differently to torque, speed, force, and amounts of pressure. For example, if the rock is extremely hard and abrasive, there would need to be a greater number of cutters, which would result in an increased blade count. If drilling through a hard rock, these cutters would be slightly smaller, compared to drilling through rock that is relatively soft, in order to improve durability and reduce the risk of damage.

If a drill bit is customized for distance, we take extra precautions due to the different formations the drill bit will go through during drilling operations. For example, in West Texas, interbedded formations that consist of inconsistent rock formations require bit features that will be able to take on multiple rock properties. These rock formations require the bit to take on unconventional designs to provide a solution for both soft formations and hard stringers. While drilling through these transitions, this can be damaging to the drill bit leading to spikes in the load being taken by the Polycrystalline Diamond Compact cutters in the bit.

PDC bit technology changed drastically over recent years because of the increased knowledge of drilling vibrations and how they influence productivity. The highly dynamic drilling system generates undesired movement and impact through vibration patterns as it rotates. This translates into high impact forces which can be transferred to the bits cutting structure and cause damage. The engineers and designers must change and adapt the bit design in order to take into account and resist these impact forces. The bit should also be modeled and balanced so that it doesn’t cause its own vibration and damage while drilling.

The Ulterra Difference

Ulterra places applications engineers in direct communication with the customer to ensure a clear understanding of products required to help deliver the desired results. Using 3D modeling design tools (CAD) to accelerate the design process, Ulterra is then able to design premium performance into every PDC bit. When the designer’s intent is verified, the drawing package is automatically created for production. As mentioned earlier, Ulterra also utilizes CFD to optimize the hydraulics and to reduce erosion of the bit body. Every bit also undergoes a work and force analysis, which helps to model performance and reduce cutter imbalance. Cutter configuration is then designed to distribute work evenly among the cutters to increase the bits drilling efficiency. Although this design process is picked with a fine tooth comb, Ulterra is able to rapidly produce and manufacture new designs within just a few days.