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How the Soviets Drilled the Deepest Hole in the World

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How the Soviets Drilled the Deepest Hole in the World
: In the Cold War '60s, as the space race heated up, another race began: to the center of the earth.
Well, perhaps the Soviets and Americans couldn't drill quite that deep, but they could try to get to the so-called Moho, more formally the Mohorovicic Discontinuity, the theorized but much-disputed boundary between the mostly solid crust and the magma-filled mantle.
After the launch of an American drilling program to reach the boundary, the Russians joined the race to drill the deepest hole in the world.
"Between 1960 and 1962, the combination of economic interest and national pride during the Space Race period inspired scientists of the Soviet Union to plan drilling a "Russian Mohole" whose objective was to reach the Mohorovicic Discontinuity before the American drilling program," Dean Dunn writing in the book, Science of the Earth.
The original goal was soon subsumed by the desire to learn more about how valuable ores formed, so the hopes of the Russian effort eventually landed in the middle-of-nowhere mining region, Pachenga. There, the Soviets drilled the deepest hole in the history of the world, more than 7 miles deep.
At the Kola Institute, pictured, the Russians drilled for more than 15 years to reach a crust depth of 40,226 feet, a record that's never been broken. But however successful the mission was as an exploration, the geological findings from the site remain murky and obscured by the way they emanated out of the fading Soviet scientific machine.
Stanford geologist and drilling expert, Mark Zoback, said that the Kola borehole was "an anomaly" even within the rather grandiose field of superdeep drilling projects.
Photo: Kola Institute
: The process for drilling a borehole is conceptually simple. A rotary drill bit, like this one, is placed into a shaft. When it reaches the bottom, a powerful motor destroys the bottom of the hole and the hole grows deeper. Fluids are circulated into and out of the hole to cool the drill and maintain the stability of the borehole. When a bit is worn out, it's swapped out.
Though the basics are well-known, superdeep drilling is a difficult enterprise. The Soviets encountered a host of technical problems drilling so deep into the earth's surface. Foremost is the high heat that deep in the crust. The Kola engineers, working with limited resources, came up with cooling processes and dozens of special bits that could work at temperatures of over 600 degrees Fahrenheit.
Photo: Kola Institute
: The Soviet drilling program began in the early '60s and continued all the way through the slow dissolution of the USSR. But the geopolitical circumstances of the day have kept much of the work shrouded in mystery. Despite the publication of a now out-of-print and hard-to-obtain book, The Superdeep Well of the Kola Peninsula, edited by Yevgeny Kozlovsky, a Soviet minister of geology, little of the project's data has ever made it out of Russia.
Photo: Kola Institute
: The workers of Kola, like those pictured here with a piece of the drill, also had to live in the remote region. In fact, a sort of company town sprung up around the superdeep hole. As described in the Kozlovsky-edited tome:
"Sanitary facilities and shower rooms, a first-aid station, a can**** to cater for staff day and night, a meeting hall and rooms for preventative medical aid provide normal living conditions for the operating personnel of the rig."
Photo: Kola Institute
: Here we see the Kola Institute's technological control room. The computers you see were the hub for data coming up from miles below. As computer technology advanced and the drilling became more complex, the Soviets began to monitor dozens of data points ranging from simple depth measures to a variety of measures for how hard the drill was working.
Photo: Kola Institute
: While drilling programs were being conducted across the globe -- notably in Germany -- the Soviet team created their own custom tools, like these alloy drill pipes. Because they were literally boring to unseen depths, the method they usually employed was trial and error. That goes a long way toward explaining how unusually long the project took.
Still, Kozlovksy bragged, "The complex scientific-technological experiment of the Kola superdeep drilling was accomplished solely by Soviet technology and technique."
Photo: Kola Institute
: The deep drilling programs were part of a concerted effort by some geologists to get funding for the large-scale facilities, like Kola's Byzantine machinery, that were delivering such spectacular results for astronomers. As recorded in the book, Super-Deep Continental Drilling and Deep Geophysical Sounding, Karl Fuchs made the space analogy explicit in his opening remarks to a conference on Kola and superdeep drilling.
"Earth science have [sic] a telescope: deep drilling and deep geophysical probing!" Fuchs said. "Are we dedicated enough to use this telescope to go beyond our present limitations, to reach for new frontiers of the earth sciences."
Photo: Kola Institute
: Kola's engineers could swap out drill bits depending on the type of rocks they were trying to move through. They describe a dozen types of core heads such as the KC-212.7/60 TKZ-NU, which "is designed for low rpm drilling in hard rock interbedded with extremely hard rocks." Most of the bits had four roller-cones, like this one, while some had six.
Photo: Kola Institute
: Even though drilling deeper became impossible, the Kola well remains open and structurally intact. Rocks from the hole -- known as cores -- are even still stored at the institute. Instruments still take seismic and other measurements, but state resources have ebbed away from the institute to other geologists who have helped build Russia's oil and gas production. The country now produces about 9.7 million barrels of oil a day, up from 6.1 million back in 1998.
Photo: Kola Institute
: The Kola borehole produced a wealth of seismic measurements, cores from deep within the Earth, and intriguing results that there might be liquid water in the depths of the earth.
Yet for all the effort and years of drilling, modern American and European geologists don't often reference or use Kola data, preferring the more tightly regulated information generated by Germany's KTB deep-coring program. Findings from Kola were just never systematically presented enough for Western scientists.
It raises the question: Why put all that effort in to ultimately produce little of value to global science? Zoback, the Stanford geologist, said Kola's goals weren't as defined as those of some other projects, perhaps because the project was more about the triumph of just doing than about a particular scientific objective.
"You have to acknowledge the fact that it may have been the sense of discovery, the idea that they might discover something [that drove them]," he said.
Or maybe, as the old minister of geology, Kozlovsky, explained in the introduction to the book on Kola, perhaps geology was just a Russian thing.
"The Soviet Union has always been more consistent in carrying out large-scale studies of the structure and regularities of the evolution of the continental crust than other countries," he wrote. "This is a deeply rooted tradition in our country, and it is still very much alive."
Photo: Kola Institute


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