Sunday, September 9, 2012

A New Series - Waterjetting 1a

In October of 1965 I started work on a doctoral dissertation that would look at whether streams of high-pressure water could be used to mine minerals, rather than using the mechanical tools that my ancestors had been using for many generations to mine coal. Until the time of my great-grandfather the main tool had been a hand-swung pick, but he had made the transition to become a compressed-air-powered, coal-cutter operator, and worked with my grandfather on running that machine until the first World War, when his son joined the Northumberland Fusiliers and went off to Belgium.

When I started my work, after my mining engineer father had approved, I found that there was little information on hydraulic mining available in the technical literature. The Internet did not exist, and the few books and articles that I could obtain came through the Brotherton Library at Leeds University, where Inter-Library Loans would find a source, and even, on occasion, a translation, but in weeks not days.

Those conditions no longer hold true, and yet, while a computer now makes it easier to get instant access to all the world’s knowledge, filtering through that vast stack to find that needed bit of information still takes time. And there are other factors that have come into play, so that much of the knowledge that has been gained may soon be lost, forgotten or spread into so many distant places as to be effectively gone. And so I am going to put together a new series of posts about this technology. Since this is the first it is more of an explanation of the background, and as the posts continue so the structure and location may change, trying to better serve those who follow me in what has been the truly fascinating development of a new very broad-based industry.

Over the past decades high-pressure waterjets have found a wide variety of different uses around the world. From the small pumps that can be bought at the local hardware store and allow you to clean houses, furniture and cars through the thousands of horsepower used in pumps for the excavation and mining/petroleum industry a quiet revolution has occurred in many industries, beyond the sight of the general public. I was fortunate enough to be a part of the relatively small group of scientists/engineers/technicians who helped bring these changes about. Around the world there were perhaps 50 or so of us, and much of our interaction took place at conferences, where we learned more from each other in bars and restaurants than we did from the formal papers that we all gave. Some changes were fairly dramatic, the use of cleaning jets on oil platforms comes to mind, and were instantly adopted, others were a longer struggle, and yet these tools have yet to find more than 90% of their ultimate market, which will likely be in fields that most of us have not even thought of yet. And the tools that have already been developed are used in many more industries than the general public understands.

I retired a couple of years ago, and followed many of that original group in moving on to other interests. Before I left, however, I had written a book, and taught a class to senior undergraduates dealing with manufacturing use, as well as the earlier mining applications. The class is not taught now, and interest in the topic has also shrunk at the other major universities, as faculty have changed, and other topics bring the “research rain” that is needed to sustain the graduate classes of today.

This does not mean that waterjetting is less valuable, but instead is recognizes that the first flush of development is over, and that the really low-hanging fruit of application has been picked by folks such as myself. The range of applications remains immense, but the rewards are not now as easily obvious, and the research results now are not so dramatic.

The current plan is to begin the series with posts that come from my lecture set. But instead of being of the usual length they will be broken down into a set of sub-topics, so that there may be three or four posts that will cover the material of a single class. This will make each post of around a thousand words, and then the four sub-topics will be combined into a “class” version which will be posted as a pdf, and this will be down-loadable, and could be printed and put into what will, over time, become a somewhat updated version of that earlier book, but in a different format.

Since none of the anticipated readership is yet aware that this is happening, I expect that it will take some time for comments and questions to develop, but as these do they will be added into the mix.

Once the original posts have become established I hope to be joined by some of the folk that are still working in the field – as I said earlier it is one that is still continuing to grow at a fairly steady pace (one of the companies that makes equipment was on the national news recently because it could not get enough trained folk to help it meet demand). New ideas will turn up, and I look forward to giving my opinions. Sadly these may appear a bit negative at first, but there were many things we tried that looked good, but did not pan out. And those were usually not, therefore, the things that we wrote papers about. But knowing something won’t work, and more particularly why not, is also useful.

The early posts will also deal more with the history and general background, since these are likely to have a more general interest, and the more technical parts of the discussion will come later, though I will try and keep that at a relatively simple level for explanation.

I got my last patent this week, it dealt with drilling oilwells – the one before that dealt with treating skin cancer. I have worked on intercontinental ballistic missiles, at nuclear facilities, on land-mine clearance and in blocked caves. So perhaps I could claim to be a surgeon, rocket scientist, nuclear scientist, fire-fighting expert, and hazardous material specialist – and that neglects all the work on manufacturing and the evolution of tools that can cut through an inch of material within an accuracy of a thousandth of in inch.

All because of the power that comes when you push a pint of water through a tiny hole. Who’d a thunkit!!


  1. Dr Summers, I saw your recent blog and hope that I have managed to access you via the correct email address. I would expect that from the response, your opinions and research would be widely sought after and I took some time to read back to 1995 some of your papers and documents.

    In short, I have started an association for the Industrial Services Sector which as you may be aware services the mining, construction and manufacturing sector. My background has been some 30 years in hospitality so a far cry from this industry, however I became aware of particularly ultra high pressure water blasting(jetting) when I was doing some consultation on a major hotel development and it was used to cut through concrete in the early phases of the build.

    We are about to launch and ss a professional association our membership will cover the full spectrum of Industrial Services and from my background we will embark on advocacy, research and policy along with the normal membership benefits.

    I am sure you are very busy however was wondering if there was an opportunity for you to work with the Association in some fashion. I look forward to hearing from you. I can be contacted on

  2. Lorraine:
    Thank you for this note, I am going to reply more fully in an e-mail.

    All the best


  3. Hi Dave, look forward to your new series on waterjetting. I operate a monitor in an underground coal mine and still refer to your book I obtained some years ago.


    Thain Mackenzie.
    New Zealand.

  4. Hi, Thain,
    I remember, and the series may even include one of the photos from a mine in NZ.

    All the best