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The Kola Superdeep Borehole itself, welded shut as seen August 2012. (Image: Rakot13 via Creative Commons)
The Kola Superdeep Borehole itself, welded shut as seen August 2012. (Image: Rakot13 via Creative Commons)

Shaking hands with the Devil – The deepest hole ever drilled

During the cold war, while the Space Race pitted the Soviet Union against the United States to conquer the skies, the two countries were also vying to drill as deep as possible into the earth.

The USSR embarked on drilling a hole in 1970 on the Kola Peninsula located east of Finland.  By 1983 the project, named the Kola Superdeep Borehole, had reached a depth of 12,000 meters (39,000 ft).  The project was then halted for a year to celebrate the milestone achievement.  When drilling resumed, the drill went 66 further meters until a 5,000-meter section of drill string (interconnected lengths of pipe) twisted off and was left in the hole.

After the first hole was botched, drilling began again at 7,000 meters, in a new hole called SG-3.  In 1989, 19 years after researchers had broken ground, the project reached 12,262 meters (40,230 ft = 7.6 mi).  Although the original plan was for the hole to be drilled to 15,000 meters (49,000 ft), the project was unable to proceed due to the temperatures encountered.  In recent years a few longer boreholes have been drilled, but the Kola Superdeep Borehole still holds the record for the deepest artificial point on earth.

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The Kola Superdeep Borehole drilling rig enclosure, standing over 200 feet tall.

The Soviet drilling project revealed just how little we know about our own planet.  The temperature at this depth was predicted to be 100°C (212°F).  Instead, they found temperatures reaching 180°C (356°F). The drilling project was ended due to the higher-than-expected temperatures.  The material being drilled out of the hole reportedly had a plastic-like consistency, and came out of the hole “boiling” with hydrogen.  If the project was to continue to its original goal of 15,000 meters, it would have encountered temperatures of approximately 300°C (570°F) where the equipment would be inoperable.

It had been assumed that the earth’s crust increased in density with depth.  The hole instead revealed highly-fractured rock that was saturated with water.  Until then it was assumed that water could not be found underneath the impermeable layers of rock.  Researchers believe that the extreme temperatures and pressures at this depth caused atoms of oxygen and hydrogen to decouple from surrounding minerals and form into water.  Apparently, it is possible to squeeze water from a stone.

Perhaps one of the most important findings from the project was the discovery of 24 species of microscopic single-cell plankton fossils.  The plankton, normally encased in limestone or silica, were instead found in organic compounds.  Even more surprising was how, despite the extreme temperatures and pressure, the fossils had remained intact for 2.7 billion years.

The Kola Superdeep Borehole in 2007. (Image: Andre Belozeroff via Creative Commons)

The Kola Superdeep Borehole in 2007. (Image: Andre Belozeroff via Creative Commons)

The project discontinued drilling operations in 1992 and was closed down in 2005 due to lack of funding.  Equipment for drilling and research has since been scrapped and the site abandoned in 2008.  The borehole itself remains, with a metal cap drilled and welded to seal off the hole.

The drilling endeavor had remained largely secret and managed to inspire urban legends in the U.S. about a “well to hell” located in an unidentified area in Siberia.  In 1989 rumors had spread to U.S. airwaves that, after drilling to a depth of 14,400 m, the drill bit spun wildly as though it had reached a pocket of hollow space below.  Researchers supposedly lowered a heat-sensitive microphone into the hole and heard what sounded like the muffled sounds of the damned, to which half of the crew fled the site. The legend even had a resurgence in the late 1990s after alleged audio from the well to hell surfaced.

The Kola Superdeep Borehole may not have reached hell itself, but it went further than any drill has to date.  The data collected from the project is invaluable and demonstrates how little we know about what lies under our feet.

The Kola Superdeep Borehole facility in 2012, long after the project was halted. (Image: Bigest via Creative Commons)

The Kola Superdeep Borehole facility in 2012, long after the project was halted. (Image: Bigest via Creative Commons)

20 comments

  1. Temps near Shiner,Tx reach 320° @ about 12500 TVD. FYI

  2. Sounds like they’re drilling in North Louisiana, but didn’t have to deal with the gas…

  3. Laura Lynn Grander look at this! !

  4. Ha Ha 2.7 billion years. They were wrong about the formation and are wrong about the years.

    • and I suppose you would be better qualified to estimate the age of the fossils? Or are you just one of those Christians that think the earth is only a few thousand years old?

  5. sounds like crap is what it sounds like hmph! :3

  6. It is apparent to me that people do not check their sources – no one thinks that it would be impossible to drill at 180oC the temperature was 1800oC – 2200oC and expected to hit 3000oC. Someone left a zero off and no one thought to check with the Russians. Water boils at 100oC so rock would not become ‘plastic’ at 180oC whatever the pressure. Check the Kola website. The 180oC figure is absolutely everywhere – so don’t feel too bad. Surely however, its best to check against your common sense and think 180oC? That makes no snese whatsoever.

  7. Wake up people remember. hell is a REAL place

  8. the temps were 180F which is give or take 80C this was purposely confsed on the website, how can water be found at 1800c and not explode use your common sense

  9. Bruce A Fouraker

    To operate a closed cycle supercritical carbon dioxide turbine requires a minimum temperature of 550 degrees centigrade. To use a closed loop CO2 geothermal system and reach this temperature means drilling down to 22,000 meters. The question is what materials could we use at those depths and pressures?

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