Rock Drilling Videos – A Glimpse of Laser-Diggers to Come

On the BTE site I talk about using lasers to dig underground cavities on Mars for establishing a permanent base there. One advantage of bases deep underground is that they provide for complete shielding from galactic cosmic rays and radiation from the sun. A second advantage is that the inside surfaces of the cavities that are cut out within solid rock can serve as the walls, ceilings, and floors for rooms in the base. This minimizes the size and mass of structures that must be sent to Mars for constructing bases.

Using lasers to cut through rock is a technology that is almost completely unknown to most people, including people with technical educations or training. (You heard about it on the BTE site first!) There have been exactly zero videos on YouTube about using lasers to cut through rock. So today I copied two videos from the Argonne National Laboratory website on to YouTube. The videos are below.

The first video is just 37 seconds long. It shows a laser drilling a hole through a rock. The nice thing about this method of drilling is that it simply vaporizes the rock, and this eliminates debris while drilling. Think about creating underground bases on Mars for a moment inside of solid rock. Are we going to try to dynamite it room by room and then send bulldozers up to Mars to clean up all the debris? I don’t think so. So the great promise of using “laser-diggers”, as I called them on the BTE site, is that this would eliminate all of this old-fashioned messiness.

So imagine say five wheeled vehicles on Mars, each with a powerful laser mounted on it, as this group of laser-diggers works together drilling. Each laser would have a few thousand times greater output power than the one shown in the video. This would be pretty awesome to watch. And it seems rather Star Trekish, which makes it even more fun.

The second video is an extended piece from the History Channel about the coming of laser drilling technology to drill through rock.

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17 Responses to Rock Drilling Videos – A Glimpse of Laser-Diggers to Come

  1. Jonathan Raymond says:

    How do you get the vaporised rock out of the area before it cools and condenses again? I guess a simple vertical shaft wouldn’t be too hard, but what about with more complex deeper excavations?

    • BTE-Dan says:

      I assume that there is ventilation tubing with a blower to move air out to the surface of Mars. Tubing will be needed to bring in surface air too.

      I don’t think vaporized rock will condense back into rock. I think it would be more like a powder.

  2. mars-2015 says:

    Fascinating. Makes me think of the Laser First gen Enterprise has. Can this be used remotely with some success. I am thinking more in sense of asteroids.

  3. mars-2015 says:

    The DOE site has pretty good papers and references. Thanks Dan. This side of laser was unknown to me I must confess. I was only following Radar and weapon stuff from DARPA.

  4. Nanard says:

    What power source (on Mars) could be used for such a laser ? Small nuclear reactor like the ones we can build today ? Laser + power source + wheels the size of a car ?

    • BTE-Dan says:

      You are right that a major power source is needed.

      On the BTE site I say a nuclear reactor similar to ones used on the Enterprise will be sent down to Mars. This may be a copy of the Enterprise aux hull reactor (unless this is major overkill). Actually, three will be sent down, for triple redundancy.

      The three reactors stay on as the permanent power source for the Mars base. So they are not just a temporary power source for the lasers.

    • BTE-Dan says:

      “Laser + power source + wheels the size of a car ?”

      I assume power lines run from the nuclear power source to the laser-digger vehicles. The reactors are too big to carry around. And the reactor cooling system really needs to be stationary.

      And I think the laser-diggers would each be the size of a car or truck as you note.

  5. Grand Lunar says:

    I really had no idea laser technology had advanced to such a level.
    It would be neat to see laser drills in action. And when proven to work on Earth, they ought to be ready for the solar system.

    On the flip side, it does demonstrate the usage of a laser as a weapon.

    • Christian says:

      Imagine what laser technology would be like 10-20 years from now. They could become more powerful and energy efficient for all we know. I wonder if Dan has considered any technological innovations that could occur within 20 years?

  6. So the laser is turning rock into gas?

    Let’s try to find out how effectively.

    Let’s say were drilling basalt, mostly Amphibole, which is SiO4. The vaporization point of high silica rock is about 3000 C, the specific heat 0,84 kJ/KgK so to vaporize 1 kg we need 3000 x 0,84 = 2300 kJ.

    Let’s bring down the 100 MW laser to the surface and use that. 100 000 000 W / 2 300 000 J/kg = 43 kg/sec. A respectable number. x 3600s x 24h = 3 700 tons per day for perfect efficiency. Let’s be fair and use 50% efficiency, so about 1 800 tons per day.

    I often work for the gold mining business. They grind rock into sub millimetric size to get the gold out. For example, the three ore crushers groups at the Osiko gold mine in Quebec are designed for about 50 000 tons of hard rock per day: 1 x 25 000 hp, 1 x 16 000 hp, 1 x 12000 hp = 53 000 horse power, Or 40 MW. This is about 70 times more rock per day for the same power.

    So, I agree with lasers for high quality holes, but for rough drilling? Grinding is the way to go.

    Interestingly, the lasers may very well chemically dissociate some of the rocks. Since most rocks are largely oxygen, laser drilling might be a source of oxygen! But perhaps not a very efficient one.

    Another possibility might be to cut the rock into square blocks using the laser. This would reduce the required energy by a factor of many thousands, making it much more effective. The by-product would be large stone blocks! Always useful for construction.


    Michel Lamontagne

    • Nuclearman says:

      So oxygen as a byproduct?

    • John Nemeth says:

      Grinding may be more efficient, but keep in mind that the equipment must be completely autonomous. There will not be any people on the same orbital body while the initial tunnnelling is being done. In other words, no resupply or human maintenance. What would your plan be for sharpening or replacing the grinding head? With a laser, you just need compressed air to blow dust away. No sharpening required.

  7. mars-2015 says:

    Defi. a direction MARS society should look into. Considering the MARS one way initiative even the construction blocks would help.

    • Grand Lunar says:

      Speaking of Mars, Curiosity has made a successful landing!

      Yet another step in our exploration of the angry Red Planet. :)

  8. The world’s strongest laser is in California and if you read the 2011 Book of World Records, it talks alot about it. It also says that the laser makes 100 million degrees farenheit.

  9. Jim Gomez says:

    Jim Gomez
    Your tube on the History Channel Modern Marvels on Drilling with Laser, recalled my attention. I have been asking experts about this subject and the answers have been negative. What is the current status of the matter? Which frequency and power are you using? Can you dig a large tunnel with HEL going through basalt rock?

  10. Oliver says:

    The power requirements mentioned by prior poster is not quite correct. While it is true for vaporization, the primary method of drilling was heat fracturing the rock.

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