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Drilling fluid

Control formation pressures, remove cuttings from the wellbore, and seal permeable formations

Drilling fluid

Any of a number of liquid and gaseous fluids and mixtures of fluids and solids (as solid suspensions, mixtures and emulsions of liquids, gases and solids) used in operations to drill boreholes into the earth. Synonymous with "drilling mud" in general usage, although some prefer to reserve the term "drilling fluid" for more sophisticated and well-defined "muds."

Drilling fluids serve many functions: controlling formation pressures, removing cuttings from the wellbore, sealing permeable formations encoun-tered while drilling, cooling and lubricating the bit, transmitting hydraulic energy to downhole tools and the bit and, perhaps most important, maintaining wellbore stability and well control.

Drilling fluid compositions vary based on wellbore demands, rig capabilities and environmental concerns. Engineers design drilling fluids to control subsurface pressures, minimize formation damage, minimize the potential for lost circulation, control erosion of the borehole and optimize drilling parameters such as penetration rate and hole cleaning. In addition, because a large percentage of modern wellbores are highly deviated, drilling fluid systems must help manage hole cleaning and stability problems specific to these wells.

Basic Functions

Drilling fluids are formulated to carry out a wide range of functions. Although the list is long and varied, key performance characteristics are the following:
  • Controlling formation pressures
Drilling fluid is vital for maintaining control of a well. The mud is pumped down the drillstring, through the bit, and back up the annulus. In open hole, hydrostatic pressure exerted by the mud column is used to offset increases in formation pressure that would otherwise force formation fluids into the borehole, possibly causing loss of well control. However, the pressure exerted by the drilling fluid must not exceed the fracture pressure of the rock itself; otherwise mud will escape into the formation—a condition known as lost circulation.
  • Removing cuttings from the borehole
Circulating drilling fluid carries cuttings—rock fragments created by the bit—to the surface. Maintaining the fluid's ability to transport these solid pieces up the hole—its carrying capacity—is key to drilling efficiently and minimizing the potential for stuck pipe. To accomplish this, drilling fluid specialists work with the driller to carefully balance mud rheology and flow rate to adjust carrying capacity while avoiding high equivalent circulating density (ECD)—the actual mud density plus the pressure drop in the annulus above a given point in the borehole. Unchecked, high ECD may lead to lost circulation.
  • Cooling and lubricating the bit
As the drilling fluid passes through and around the rotating drilling assembly, it helps cool and lubricate the bit. Thermal energy is transferred to the drilling fluid, which carries the heat to the surface. In extremely hot drilling environments, heat exchangers may be used at the surface to cool the mud.
  • Transmitting hydraulic energy to the bit and downhole tools
Drilling fluid is discharged through nozzles at the face of the bit. The hydraulic energy released against the formation loosens and lifts cuttings away from the formation. This energy also powers downhole motors and other hard-ware that steer the bit and obtain drilling or formation data in real time. Data gathered downhole are frequently transmitted to the surface using mud pulse telemetry, a method that relies on pressure pulses through the mud column to send data to the surface.
  • Maintaining wellbore stability
The basic components of wellbore stability include regulating density, minimizing hydraulic erosion and controlling clays. Density is maintained by slightly overbalancing the weight of the mud column against formation pore pressure. Engineers minimize hydraulic erosion by balancing hole geometry against cleaning requirements, fluid carrying capacity and annular flow velocity. The process of clay control is complex. Clays in some formations expand in the presence of water, while others disperse. To some degree, these effects can be controlled by modifying the properties of the drilling fluid. Regardless of the approach used, controlling the fluid's effect on the formation helps control the borehole and the integrity of the cuttings and leads to a cleaner, more easily maintained drilling fluid.

A Century of Continual Development

From humble beginnings about 100 years ago, drilling fluids have evolved as a science, an engineering discipline and an art. Scientists and product developers create new fluid designs that address the many demands placed on modern drilling fluids, while engineers and fluid specialists in the field continue to find new ways to monitor, measure, simulate and manage the drilling fluid life cycle.