PLANT

Drilling at sonic speed

Ray Roussy, co-owner of Surrey, BC-based Sonic Drilling Ltd., sees the market potential of using vibration to drill holes.


Ray Roussy and his sonic drill in action.

Photo: Sonic Drill

Over the past century many have attempted to develop sonic drilling technology, but either failed or gave up; however, one BC innovator has finally prevailed.

It may have taken him three decades of trial and error while plugging away in his own backyard – with minimal financing – but Ray Roussy, co-owner of Surrey, BC-based Sonic Drilling Ltd., saw the market potential of using vibration to drill holes.

A traditional drill rig rotates a pipe, pushing it into the ground using drilling mud (clay and water) to keep the hole open. When the drill pipe is removed, there’s a risk the newly drilled hole will collapse before a casing is inserted.

Roussy’s technology is based on the same principle, but the sonic drill vibrates at a high frequency, which speeds up the process considerably.

“We’re also able to use the drill pipe as a casing. This open-ended piece of pipe vibrates into the ground to form the hole, and protects it from collapse,” he says.

As a result, geothermal installations (for example) are faster and easier, but the patented technology also allows continuous core samples to be taken for accurate geological site profiles. They’re used for the design of geothermal loop fields and environmental investigations, both markets Roussy and his business partner Tom Savage are pursuing through Sonic Drilling, US-based Sonic Drill Corp. and their manufacturing unit Sonic Drill Systems in Chilliwack, BC.

Roussy credits George Constantinesco, a Romanian intellectual who immigrated to England in 1910, with the idea of using vibrations to drill holes (see www.sonicdrilling.com for a history of sonic drilling).

Development continued 20 years later by Romanian engineer Ion Basgan who received patents in Romania and the US for his technique, and more interest was shown through the 1940s and 1950s when American inventor Albert Bodine continued development work, mostly focused on large, pile driving machines. He sold his equipment in the 1970s to Hawker Siddeley, a British aircraft manufacturer with offices in Canada, where the young mechanical engineer Roussy was part of a team hired to further develop the pile driver technology. Hawker Siddeley discontinued its efforts in the early 1980s, and Roussy left to pursue his own ideas on how sonic drill heads could be adapted for use in different applications.

Working out of his home office and a workshop in his backyard, and having no financing to speak of, his only option was to build a machine himself.

In the beginning, Roussy’s priority was to make the machine reliable, which took what he describes as “an eternity” to achieve.

“In the early days we would see the machine fail within a few minutes [of running]. So I would redesign a part and put it back into operation, then another part would fail.”

Roussy says the machine had to operate 24 hours a day for five years before they felt comfortable selling it to someone else.

Development and testing took place in ‘real world’ settings under the contracting company Sonic Drilling Ltd. Once deemed ready for the market, commercializing the technology began, which was another long process.

Tough terrain
Getting business locally wasn’t a problem, though. The sonic drill is five times faster than conventional rigs or drilling methods, boring through tough terrain that will thwart the other drillers. The partners demonstrated the technology to some of the larger engineering outfits involved in environmental investigation, and soon the phone was ringing.

In the geothermal world, a lot of drilling jobs get held up when conventional drilling runs into some ground that won’t yield.

“That’s when people find out we exist,” says Roussy, whose company does a lot of “rescue” work on stalled projects.

Geothermal projects run on tight schedules. Installing a geothermal system at a building site has to be done fast. “The property owners aren’t looking for the lowest price, but rather a company that will get the job done quickly and efficiently, because time is money on a big scale,” says Roussy.

The company has a pretty good handle on the sonic drilling market, which is generating close to $10 million a year. To protect this booming trade, Sonic Drill does not license or sell its equipment locally. But it does demonstrate the technology worldwide, and the machinery is sold or the technology is licensed to companies abroad for exclusive use in their markets.

The machinery comes in various sizes, costing between $150,000 and $700,000. Sonic Drill has also designed its own drill piping and accessories.

When a drill pipe vibrates at a high frequency, the vibration decreases as more drill piping is added. Sonic Drill’s unique tooling includes drill pipes, rods, bits and other accessories that operate at a high frequency and transmit vibrations in really deep holes.

The technology also has a green benefit: it uses water instead of compressed air, and H2O replaces drill mud.

As the business takes off, Roussy is getting innovation nods. In September, he was presented with a prestigious Manning Innovation Award and a $10,000 prize from the Ernest C. Manning Awards Foundation. The award recognizes Canadians who have “the imagination to innovate and the stamina to succeed.”

He has certainly demonstrated perseverance over the decades it took to bring an innovation to market that is literally and figuratively groundbreaking.