Exclusive interview with John MacPhail

May 22, 2017

John MacPhail has been in the drilling industry for 38 years, working in seismic and oil field drilling then moving through to mineral exploration with air drilling and diamond drilling applications. After 10 years of being at the controls himself and then field operations manager, John, together with his brother Jim, started a supply company in Calgary, Alberta, called Sphere Drilling Supplies, which became one of the first distributors of Matex drilling fluids and lubricants. The brothers sold their supply company and machine shop in 2006, and John is now the major shareholder of Control Chemical (1989) Corporation, travelling extensively and setting up distributors and promoting Matex products worldwide.

Grigor Topev: How did you get involved with the drilling fluid business?
John MacPhail: I moved to Alberta in 1978 as a young lad and started working in the seismic drilling field. After a couple of years, an opportunity came up for me to move into mineral exploration drilling. I started off helping on the drills, and then moved to driller for a few years, and eventually on to overseeing the field operations. In 1988, my brother and I started a drilling supply company called Sphere Drilling Supplies in Calgary and became the first distributor for Matex Drilling Fluids.

GT: What is the story of Matex and how did you become involved with them?
JM: A gentleman by the name of Bob Coak of Calgary started manufacturing environmentally safe drilling lubricants and fluids in 1986, and I was one of the drillers involved in the field tests. I was very impressed with the vegetable-based RDO-302ES Rock Drill Oil – it out-preformed any of the petroleum products we had used. Besides being environmentally safe, the product gave us a much better hammer life, increased our penetration rates and eliminated hammer freezing issues. I was so impressed that once I left the drilling side of the business and started out in supply, I found Bob and asked him if I could become a distributor of his products. That’s where it started.

GT: What share of the diamond drilling industry market do Matex products have?
JM: We’re not the largest manufacturer of drilling fluids in the market, but we pride ourselves on being more of a specialized manufacturer. Our focus is on being the world leader in manufacturing environmentally safe drilling fluids and lubricants. You tend to find our products on more difficult operations with fault zones and so on.

GT: Can you tell us some more about your factory and its production capacity?
JM: All our products are manufactured at our 50,000 square foot manufacturing facility in Calgary. Over the last five years we have implemented computerised, automated systems for better control and accuracy in our formulas. We presently hold about 660,000 litres of raw fluids for blending into Matex products, which are sold globally through a distribution network.

GT: Is the Canadian market Matex’s biggest, and where else you have a strong presence?
JM: Matex currently has three personnel working with and supporting our distributors worldwide. We are a global company; the world is our playing field! Most of our products are shipped in 20 foot and 40 foot containers to distributors around the world. Regarding our ‘presence’, it depends on which industry we are talking about. In mineral exploration, we have concentrated efforts in North America, Mexico, Australia, South America, Europe, South Africa and other African countries, to name just few.

GT: Does Matex provide assistance with products and expertise for cementation jobs?
JM: We don’t concentrate our efforts in cementation, because we don’t supply cement products.

GT: How important is field technical support for the successful application of a drilling fluid program?
JM: We are very strong believers in educating our technical support staff. We have a 48-person classroom at our Calgary facility with real time glass mixing tanks. We had such success with it that we built a portable classroom known as Ted (Travelling Educational Demonstrator). So far, Ted and a Matex technician have been to Australia, South America, South Africa, and Ted recently made his way to Russia.

GT: Why are mud programs still neglected in mineral exploration drilling? Do you think the presence of dedicated mud expert on site would pay off?
JM: It’s my observation there’s a lack of education in the field. If we do not educate people who use our fluids, the programs can become very expensive and most of the time the products will be wasted. Just because a little bit of something is good doesn’t mean that more is better. As a matter of fact, it can work against you and cause you problems. For this reason, in difficult drilling conditions, if there isn’t an experienced mud man on your team, I would say a consultant would definitely pay for himself. Training takes a little time, but if we take the time to learn the fundamentals, we will achieve a lot more. It’s no different to taking a few minutes a day for safety meetings; it can save us a lot in the long run.

Matex’s training room in Calgary

GT: What’s the most popular mixture of your products? Is there a universal recipe that can be applied in normal geological conditions?
JM: There’s no one answer for drilling fluids. We have our basic products to start from and build on-site programs from there. Matex has developed our DSPA product line as an easy-to-mix product which covers most in-hole challenges. There are presently two DSPA products: DD Xpress for use in normal ground conditions, and Sand Xpress for more sandy, gravel and porous formations.

GT: What should drilling people know about polymers?
JM: There are many different kinds and types of polymers. I guess the best way to put it is: a polymer is not just a polymer. There are synthetic polymers and there are natural polymers. They all have their own purposes in fluids systems. A natural polymer is more of a thickener, whereas a synthetic polymer creates long strings or chains that bind together to create a viscous fluid capable of wrapping a core while also stabilizing the bore hole wall. In most unstable formations, the longer and stronger chains the polymer creates the better.
There are many combinations of polymers out there, blended to perform certain duties in various formations. These blends will vary in price depending on the actual recipe. At Matex, we tend to lean toward the longer, stronger, more expensive polymers, as we’re looking for superior performance from our products.

GT: How can you distinguish the quality of drilling fluid additives? What are you looking for?
JM: The number one fluid is always the water! If you have bad quality water then you will have bad mud. Always try and get your water to a PH of between 7 and 9. This will save you money on any of your additives.
We all have go-to products that we were trained to use and are comfortable with. From there, as the formation changes in the hole we have to start to play with the fluids to try and overcome any down-hole issues we may encounter. At Matex, we say start at the top of the hole with a good mixture of lubricant, a good polymer and clay inhibitor.
It’s easy to check your viscosity with a standard cup and funnel. If you check your viscosity and record your mixture right from the start then you know what you started with. Record keeping is important. Then, if you’re achieving good core recovery, you know what mixtures you had. Check your viscosity periodically and do what we call a stringer test. You can easily do this using a strainer or even just your hand, lifting some fluid out of the tank and visually inspecting the strings hanging down. Look for long strong chains in your drilling fluid.

GT: Are there any innovations in the drilling muds industry? Are we going to see something new any soon?
JM: I think all drilling fluid manufacturers are continually trying to enhance the performance of their fluids. Blending is probably the biggest area for potential change. This industry is known for its ups and downs, which creates job instability and makes experienced personnel hard to find. So the more we as manufacturers can make our products user friendly, the better chances the contractor has of success.

GT: Besides the mixing ability with the water, is there any other difference between the dry and liquid polymer?
JM: Absolutely. There’s a huge difference. You will always get more bang for your buck out of dry polymers versus liquid. As long as you have the systems on the drill to mix dry polymers properly, you’re better off using them. Dry polymers take a little longer to mix than liquid polymers, and as environmental regulations continue to tighten, liquid polymers are being used less and less, because they have a small amount of mineral spirits in them.

GT: What are the most common polymers used in drilling?
JM: Synthetic polymers are the ones most used in core drilling, because we’re trying to wrap the core and stabilize the bore hole wall. Not all formations require polymers – in some formations, you can get away with only using water. We do suggest however in formations like this to use a good environmentally safe water-soluble lubricant to keep the bit cool and protect the rods.

GT: What is DSPA and what’s the difference between DSPA and other polymers?
JM: DSPA is a unique Matex blend. DSPA stands for dry suspended polyacrylamide. We worked hard on refining this product to address the problem of not necessarily always having experienced fluid personnel on site. DD Xpress and Sand Xpress are both liquid and dry at the same time! They are proportionately correct combinations of our E.S. lubricants, polymers, clay inhibitors and stabilisers all in one pail, aimed at eliminating the misuse of polymers and associated additives.
When we blend this mixture at our factory, each dry ingredient is encapsulated in the E.S. lubricant, allowing each grain to properly unravel when mixed with water. It’s important to have the right combination of product in the pail as each ingredient compliments the other. The idea behind these products is, if you require a little more lubricant, add a little more of the “DSPA” Xpress product; if you require a little more polymer, add a little more; if you require a little more clay inhibitor, add a little more. Each ingredient in the pail enhances the others to its maximum potential. DSPA is the only liquid polymer that can be transported by air, as it doesn’t contain any mineral spirits.

GT: What does ‘environmentally safe product’ mean, exactly? For example, can it be discharged into the nearest water resource?
JM: When we speak of environmentally safe products, we mean they are not harmful to the environment when used as per manufacture’s recommendations. This can be quite a grey area. Too much of anything can be harmful to the environment, including naturally mined additives.
At Matex, we use only vegetable oils to manufacture our lubricants. We have tested our lubricants against industry standard products and they have proved to be better performers and much less harmful to the environment. These lubricants have often been used around lakes and other fish-bearing waters. Fish have even been known to eat the vegetable oil with no adverse effect. There is no petroleum content in our lubricants. As for polymers, they’re often used in waste water treatment plants before releasing the water into rivers. There is no one standard or benchmark for a manufacturer to meet, so we just do our best to provide environmental safety data when required.

GT: I don’t see a rod grease among your products? Why is that?
JM: Matex doesn’t manufacture or supply a rod grease, the reason being that we have a product called Torqueless. We start all of our fluids off with Torqueless. If you have the right amount of Torqueless in your fluids, you will not require a rod grease. As a matter of fact, if you are using rod grease in conjunction with Torqueless and you have circulation, Torqueless will remove your rod grease, totally defeating the purpose of the rod grease and wasting you money.
Torqueless is an environmentally safe, water-soluble lubricant that adheres to rods and all metals that it comes in contact with. It puts a protective film on the rods and all other tools that will actually protect the tools from rusting when encountering brine or acidic water. You can even use Torqueless in salt water and still have no rust whatsoever. The only time we would suggest using rod grease in conjunction with Torqueless is when you do not have circulation at all. We would suggest applying some grease to protect the rods until the rods reach the in hole fluids. This way you should be protected from the top down and the bottom up. A lot of our distributors carry a rod grease for this very reason.

GT: What is your opinion of drilling with plain water?
JM: Let’s face it, in this business our aim is to recover the best core at the best price, and some formations do not require much in the way of drilling fluids. Sometimes the formation calls for more expensive products, and other times a contractor can do without additives altogether. We always say, do the math! Whatever works for the lowest cost per foot or metre. Again, the suggestion from our side would be to use a lubricant. The same would apply to any type of drilling.

GT: Drilling with water loss is still commonly seen. Why are loss circulation materials neglected? Do you have any observations on the cost-effectiveness of such products?
JM: It is always best to have and maintain circulation if possible, but, yes, drillers can often drill with no circulation. The trick is to watch your torque and your core. This will tell you the type of formation you are drilling in. There are lots of experienced drillers out there who know what they are doing and how the formations will react to their in hole tooling and fluids. Cost-effectiveness is always at the top of a drilling fluids manufacturer’s conversation.

GT: Do you agree that we often drill through bad fault zones where drilling additives don’t really help and cementation is the only solution?
JM: All formations are certainly not equal. We have to do what we have to do with local products that are available. Sometimes we have no option but to try and stabilize the formation with cement.

GT: Do you have a product that that can help releasing stuck rods?
JM: We have often used Torqueless to release stuck rods. Torqueless is an unbelievable penetrating oil as well as a lubricant. We always tell the drillers if they have stuck rods to try and get some Torqueless down the inside and the outside of the rods and then just let it sit there for sometimes 24 hours, as the Torqueless will climb up and down the rods. Hopefully we can get enough in there to free the rods. We’ve had success like this even in deep hole drilling in the oil fields.

GT: What is the best way to calculate your fluid costs?
JM:There are many ways to calculate drilling fluid costs. Some people calculate the cost of the pail, some calculate the cost per mixed batch, some calculate the cost per metre, and so on. You have to look at what is giving you the best overall daily performance. When you calculate the overall daily drilling operational costs, your camp, including food, man-power, fuel and so on, is a few more metres per day worth the extra expense of a proper drilling fluid? What would you save if you could do the same job in 25 days versus 30 days?

GT: It looks like exploration drilling is starting to recover. Are you seeing any sign of that at Matex?
JM: Absolutely! We participated at the PDAC in Toronto again this year, and there was nothing but positive news from all the contractors that we had a chance to talk to, both at our booth and at other functions during the week. It’s nice to be in the industry in another upswing.

GT: John MacPhail, thank you.