China has begun digging its deepest borehole in an effort to study areas of the planet deep beneath the surface.
The drilling of the borehole began on Tuesday in a desert in the Tarim basin in China’s north-western region of Xinjiang, according to the Chinese state-run Xinhua news agency. With a planned depth of 11,100 metres, the narrow shaft will penetrate more than 10 continental strata and reach the cretaceous system in the Earth’s crust – a series of stratified rocks dating back 145m years.
The project is expected to be completed in 457 days and has been hailed by Chinese state media outlets as “a landmark in China’s deep-Earth exploration”.
The deep exploration well will allow scientists to study the internal structure and evolution of the Earth, and provide data for geoscience research, China National Petroleum Corporation, the country’s leading oil and gas producer which led the project, said in a statement.
Wang Chunsheng, a technical expert involved in the operation, described it as a bold attempt to explore the unknown territory of the Earth and expand the boundaries of human understanding.
It is not going to be an easy feat, however. “The construction difficulty of the drilling project can be compared to a big truck driving on two thin steel cables,” Sun Jinsheng, a scientist at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, told Xinhua.
The equipment, which weighs more than 2,000 tonnes, is designed to withstand underground temperatures of up to 200C and an atmospheric pressure that is 1300 times higher. In addition to the extreme conditions deep below the surface, the harsh ground environment of the Tarim basin – home to China’s hottest, driest desert – adds to the challenge.
The project is part of the country’s efforts to explore new frontiers in space and below the Earth’s surface. In 2021, the Chinese president urged the country’s leading scientists to break new barriers in different areas, including deep Earth exploration.
Separately, Xi Jinping has also stressed the need to boost domestic energy supply, pushing Chinese energy giants to look for natural resources.
The Xinjiang region, in particular, is known to be rich in mineral deposits and oil. Only last month, Sinopec, China’s largest refining company, found sizable oil and gas flows in an exploration well in the Tarim basin at a depth of more than 8,500 metres below the surface.
With a depth of 12,262 metres, the Kola Superdeep Borehole in north-west Russia is the world’s deepest human-made hole.