Local hydrologist Tim Cleath has surveyed drilling rigs in more than 20 countries, but he has never seen one as innovative as the rig tested in a San Luis Obispo backyard last weekend.
That’s because Cal Poly students custom engineered it.
A collaboration between Cal Poly and three San Luis Obispo Rotary clubs is aiming to bring inexpensive well-drilling technology to developing nations, where nearly half of the population is suffering from illnesses caused by the lack of access to safe water and sanitation, according to a report in 2005 by the Stockholm International Water Institute.
The Rotary clubs have so far donated $40,000 to the effort, and Cal Poly seniors in the mechanical engineering and civil engineering departments have built the rig.
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“Most drilling designs for the developed world are big, expensive, heavy and use a lot of energy, said Cal Poly mechanical engineering professor Frank Owen. “Ours is smaller, cheaper and simpler,” so that people in developing nations can afford to build and implement it.
The design challenge was to create a durable rig that could drill hundreds of feet into both hard and soft surfaces using materials that are easily accessible in developing nations for less than $20,000.
As the model rig drilled one foot in 20 minutes on the property of Bob Hather, who spearheaded the project for San Luis Obispo’s Monday Rotary Club, it appeared the goal had been achieved.
“Its like getting somewhere on a scooter or bicycle as opposed to a car. It may take longer and be a bit uncomfortable, but it gets the job done,” said Owen, a member of the Rotary Club of San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.
The rig uses brakes from an old car; a 13-horsepower engine (for comparison, the 2010 Ford Mustang has 540 horsepower); and weighs about a quarter of a common rig. Its most sophisticated aspect is a hydraulics system, which must be ordered.
The next step is to draw up engineering plans, which Rotary has decided not to patent, so that Third world residents can build their own wells from the plans.
Cal Poly students have already raised $32,000 for Rotary to implement the rig technology in orphanages in Malawi.
Hather says that Rotary plans to support entrepreneurs by offering Africans loans to build the rigs. Rotary plans to pay them approximately $2,000 to drill the first of countless wells that each machine will be capable of creating.
The final destination for the local rig is not yet determined. In May, it will travel to the annual international Rotary convention in New Orleans, where 30,000 presidents of Rotary clubs across the country can learn how to fund and implement the new technology.