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[Sandia Lab News]

Vol. 53, No. 6        March 23, 2001
[Sandia National Laboratories]

Albuquerque, New Mexico 87185-0165    ||   Livermore, California 94550-0969
Tonopah, Nevada; Nevada Test Site; Amarillo, Texas

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Downhole fiber optics; Direct-write process ; Distributed Information Systems Lab


Inexpensive disposable fiber optics can relay real-time information about well-drilling process

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By Chris Burroughs

A new technique developed by Sandia researchers using an inexpensive disposable fiber optics telemetry system to relay real-time information about the drilling process is capturing the attention of the oil and gas industry.

"We have come up with a unique system using throwaway fiber optics that relays information about what is going on at the end of the drill string as it is happening," says David Holcomb (6117), Labs researcher who devised the technique. "Information is instantaneously sent to the surface about temperatures, pressure, chemistry, and rock formation -- all obtained without stopping the drilling operation."

David conceived the idea of a disposable cable about eight years ago at an oil and gas industry meeting. People there indicated the need for immediate access to information about the drilling process and the formations being drilled. They wanted to obtain data without halting the drilling operation and have it be transmitted to the surface immediately at a rate high enough to support video or televiewer systems.

"Traditionally to gather this type of information, drilling would have to be stopped so that instrumentation could be lowered into the drill hole," David says. "Ceasing the drilling process is extremely expensive -- as much as $100,000 to $200,000 a day for offshore drilling. A better way was needed."

Familiar with disposable fiber developed for the non-line-of-sight missile guidance systems in the 1980s, he realized the technology might be applied to well drilling.

The use of fiber optics telemetry to transmit information from the down-hole end of the drill string while drilling is in process has been of interest to the oil and gas well drilling industry for some time. However, it was considered expensive. A bulky armor was required to protect the delicate optical fiber, and deploying the cable interfered with drilling. David's technique, instead, uses unarmored fiber, protected only by a thin, clear protective plastic coating, similar to that found in missile guidance systems which can deploy miles of fiber from a small spool at missile speeds.

"The key difference from other attempts to insert fiber optic cable in drill pipes is to consider the cable a throwaway item, to be used once and then ground up and flushed out in the drilling mud," David says. "If the cable only has to survive for a few hours and need not be retrieved, it is feasible to use 'unarmored' fiber, which is cheap and can be wound into packages small enough to be inserted into the drill pipe without interfering with operations."

The extreme lightness and compactness of the unarmored optical fiber make it easy to manipulate, compared to the massiveness of a conventional reusable cable. The fiber flows through the drill string with the mud to reach the bottom of the hole, where it instantaneously sends back information to drill operators.

Actual oil and gas drill holes are about eight to ten inches, or larger, in diameter. The pipe (drill string) running down the middle of the hole through which the mud flows is about five inches. To deploy and control the optical fiber in the rapidly moving mud in the drill string, researchers developed a deployment tool. The optical fiber is wound up like a spool of thread inside the tool, which controls the payout of the fiber into the drill string. The entire deployment tool weighs about 75 pounds; the actual fiber optics being placed into the drill string weigh only about one pound.

David said he and other researchers successfully showed that the disposable fiber optics telemetry system works in tests last September at the GRI/CatoosaSM Test Facility, Inc., a subsidiary of the Gas Technology Institute (GTI), located in Catoosa, Okla.

"We got the fiber down and the information back all successfully," he says. "While in field tests the optical fiber was dropped only 3,000 feet, we see no limitations. The cable could easily reach 10,000 to 20,000 feet."

Researchers had two primary concerns going into the test. They were worried that the abrasive nature of the mud flowing through the drill string would chew up the fiber. They also were concerned that the drag of the mud flow down the drill hole would break the fiber.

Both concerns turned out to be inconsequential.

"The abrasiveness was not a problem," David says. "The fiber doesn't fight. It has a light plastic coat that gives. It doesn't resist abrasive particles."

The second concern, drag, also proved not to be a problem. Laboratory drag measurements over-predicted the drag by a factor of two or three. The researchers aren't quite sure why the inconsistencies between the lab tests and the field tests exist. One possibility might be that the fiber moves to the wall of the drill string, out of the way of the mudflow. The only way to know for sure is to send a camera down with the fiber optics.

Researchers also determined the new system could transmit data at about one megabit per second, five orders of magnitude faster than commercially available MWD (measure while drilling) transmission system, without interfering with the drilling process.

David says that before he could get support to research this new technique of obtaining information in a drill hole, he had to get past the "giggle" factor.

"Everyone thought of the drilling environment as a rough environment that would rapidly chew up the optical fiber," he says. "What we learned is that once the fiber flows with the mud, it's a pretty benign environment."

Early funding came from Sandia's Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program. GTI has funded more recent research.

Currently GTI is seeking a partnership from the oil and gas industry to put the new inexpensive disposable fiber optics telemetry system into production.

"There's been a lot of interest," David says. "This could change the future of oil and gas drilling around the world." -- JChris Burroughs

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Direct-write: New way to build small, flexible, complex multilayer electronics

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By Chris Burroughs

Sandia researchers have been working on an innovative way to build multilayer electronic components that are smaller, more flexible, and complex than those produced for standard electronic packaging.

Called "direct-write," it uses a computer-automated device for precision printing of ceramic and metallic slurries on a substrate. The electronics are "drawn" on the base with an ink-filled nozzle, rather than being screen-printed or etched. This allows them to be built using a variety of materials and printed in complicated shapes.

The printing is done using a commercial system, called a Micropen, which is manufactured by OhmCraft, Inc. of Rochester, N.Y. The Sandia group has worked with OhmCraft and several other companies through a program sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to explore the potential of this approach for depositing a breadth of materials -- including conductors, high-value resistors, magnetic materials, and chemically sensitive elements -- in precise patterns.

"This new system is extremely valuable for rapid prototyping of electronics and is ideally suited for fabricating highly customized circuits, which are especially appropriate for Sandia technologies," says Duane Dimos, Manager of Ceramic Materials Dept. 1843. Duane has been involved with the project since its inception four years ago. "Without having to make tooling, such as screens or masks, we can build high-precision electronic parts in a short period of time to let engineers know quickly if their design works."

The system also allows electronics to be constructed in unusual and complex patterns. For example, a communications chip manufactured in this manner could potentially be small and flexible enough to be fabricated on a soldier's helmet or as an integral part of any odd-shaped object.

Sandia and its DARPA partners have already used the technique to build a number of prototype antennas in unusual shapes for Navy applications, which are currently being tested.

Duane says the technique is similar to one developed by Joe Cesarano (1843) to fabricate free-form ceramics, called robocasting, which relies on robotics for computer-controlled deposition of ceramic slurries -- mixtures of ceramic powder, water, and trace amounts of chemical modifers -- through a syringe.

In contrast, this work uses a variety of metallic and ceramic slurries or "inks," to write intricate patterns for precision circuitry. The electronic inks are heated at low temperatures to evaporate any fluids, leaving behind the dried metal or ceramic, and then fired to sinter the powders together.

To date, the most complex direct-write components consist of 13 printed layers. Pin Yang (14192) has led the effort to fabricate devices such as integrated RC filters, multilayer voltage transformers, resistor networks, and other components.

Paul Clem (1846), one of the project's leaders, says that two aspects of the direct-write system make it useful. First, the Micropen can deposit fine line traces or areas on nonplanar substrates, and, second, slurries (inks) can be custom-designed for specific needs and specific functional components.

"The Micropen can use nozzle sizes from 2 mils (50 microns) to 100 mils to obtain different print geometries, such as fine line traces or filled dielectric regions," Paul says.

Other inks that have been developed by Sandians include resistors, magnetic materials, and porous chemical sensors.

Chemist Nelson Bell (1843) is studying the area of slurry modification for the project. He says that although a number of commercially available slurries/inks are available and suitable, he is looking at changes in powder materials, solvents, binders, wetting agents, and drying control agents that can improve the printing and performance of the inks.

"We want to come up with the best possible slurries to avoid clogging the printing tip to control flow and line shape during printing, and shrinking after firing," Nelson says. "All these aspects have to be taken into consideration."

Paul says the current challenge for the research team is working with lower temperatures in the final firing stage. The goal is to put these multilayered electronic components on substrate materials such as plastic that can't withstand high temperatures.

"We have redesigned many of these materials so that we can achieve the same performance by heating the parts up to only 300-400 degrees C instead of 850 degrees C," Paul says. "We should be there soon."

Philip Gallegos, Manager of Electronic Fabrication Dept. 14112, who has several customers interested in exploring this technology, calls this a "very interesting technology."

"We are looking for new ways to apply this technology to fabricate electrical/mechanical prototypes from 3-D model-based design," Phillip says. -- Chris Burroughs

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Distributed Information Systems Laboratory to create distributed computing environments

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By Barry Schrader

A new facility to develop and deploy distributed information systems technologies for the nuclear weapons complex (NWC) is now in design and will be constructed at Sandia/ California by 2003.

Design of the new facility, called the Distributed Information Systems Laboratory (DISL), started last November. Construction is scheduled to start in April 2002 at the site where the recently demolished Bldg. 913 once stood.

DISL, a $35.5 million project sponsored by the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI) program, is needed to help provide more effective distributed and distance computing capabilities for the DOE weapons design community, according to Steve Carpenter (8904), DISL program manager.

"DISL will bring together the technologies needed to develop a distributed information systems infrastructure that will link the nuclear weapons complex of the future," says Steve. He says the facility is part of the ASCI strategy for an integrated approach to modeling and simulation-based stockpile stewardship.

Location at heart of the site

"Many challenges remain in providing a secure distributed computing capability for the DOE complex," says Ken Washington, the DISL program director. "DISL is where we will learn how to solve many of these challenges and future challenges that will arise as the distributed computing fabric of the DOE complex evolves."

Located at the heart of the Sandia/California site, and with portions of the building in both the classified limited area and the unclassified property protection area, the facility will be easily accessible to all people on site and to visitors as well.

"The building is planned to function as a central hub for the site," says Steve, "with significant conferencing facilities and an indoor-outdoor break area with coffee and food services for all to use that will help create the interactive and collaborative atmosphere we want to see in DISL ."

Adds Ken: "DISL is much more than a building to us. By being at the center of the site, DISL is a bold statement about Sandia's commitment to distance and distributed computing in the DOE complex. A key attribute of DISL is that it will provide offices and labs in both the limited area and the property protection area. The limited-area spaces will enable ASCI-developed technologies to be more readily deployed for weapons design and manufacturing work. The open spaces in DISL will make it easier for us to collaborate with industry and universities on distributed information technology research and development."

Research, develop, and deploy

DISL is being designed to provide collaborative work environments needed to successfully research, develop, and deploy distributed computing and visualization solutions for the NWC. Research in DISL will focus on distributed systems and visualization, networking, information security, and development of collaborative technologies. R&D workspace and laboratories will include specialized networking research labs and a next-generation visualization design center.

A significant part of DISL will also house one or more weapons design project teams, with personnel working in areas such as systems engineering, design definition, gas transfer systems, telemetry and instrumentation, structural and thermal analysis, and surety design. Steve says one of the challenges is to get the right mix of personnel occupied in the weapons design area, both weapons designers and the people who will work with them, to successfully utilize new distributed computing and collaborative technologies.

'Sustainably designed'

"The goal is to enable weapons design teams with state-of-the-art capabilities to ultimately enhance weapons design and manufacturing through deployed ASCI technologies," says Steve.

The architectural firm of Dekker/Perich/Sabatini (D/P/S) of Albuquerque, N.M., was awarded the design contract for DISL for $1,562,000. The firm has done work for Sandia previously (in Albuquerque) and has experience with other ASCI-sponsored projects. Craig Taylor (8512), the DISL project manager, says, "The design is progressing as expected. D/P/S has done an excellent job of capturing and programming the needs of the occupants."

The 70,400-gross-square-foot-building will be "sustainably designed," according to Craig. He says it is Sandia's intent to design DISL to provide a healthful, resource-efficient, and productive working environment. The design will represent a balance that accommodates human needs without diminishing the health and productivity of natural systems.

Construction is scheduled for completion by October 2003. The facility should be fully occupied and operational by April 2004. -- Barry Schrader

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Last modified: March 22, 2001


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