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TCU Magazine "Academe"
Articles:  The bond of music | In the nick of time

Oil's well

Deep in the heart of Texas, at least a billion barrels of oil wait to be found. Associate Prof. Stephen Weis and undergraduate assistant Brad Beadle '97 engineered a way with Rockbit International to make drilling for that black gold more efficient.

By David Van Meter

DRILL BITS the world over bite through clay, limestone, shale, whatever, in search of the next Spindletop. Problem is, the temperature even 1,000 feet below can become a toasty 350 degrees, the pressure upon the bit 40 times greater than gravity, the torque enough to twist wildcatters' dreams into nightmares.

With those kind of odds, oil companies could always use another ace in their holes. And that's what engineering Associate Prof. Stephen Weis, along with undergraduate assistant Brad Beadle '97, dealt, thanks to a grant from Rockbit International.

Called an MWD system, that is "measurement-
while-drilling," Weis' device could also be called a fiber optic modem. Instead of getting information across the Internet, however, this modem tells those "uphole" about what the drill bit is facing "downhole," gauging up to 30 different environmental factors.

The idea is not new, said Rockbit CEO Marvin Gearhart, but the technology and performance level is. Current devices transmit information uphole at about two bits per second. Weis' and Beadle's modem is 150 times faster, "and that's not even pushing it," Weis said. And as Gearhart points out, horizontal drilling efforts, where this modem will be used, use more than 20 sensors measuring temperature, pressure, torque, direction, rock type and other factors. "Steve's fiber optics research will allow us to get all the real-time data we need... at the time we need it, so that we can drill more efficiently."

Gearhart also believes the modem will reduce the time to process the reams of data from two to three years to less than six months.

The number 5675674 now belongs to Weis, at least the patent it refers to, but that's not what pleases the modest professor most.

It's the student he saw become an engineer before his very eyes. "I approached Brad as a freshman to see if he was interested in what I was doing," Weis said. Beadle was, and as a senior worked five six-hour days a week to make the fiber optic modem a reality.

"This research is as much Brad's as mine," Weis said. "Now, certainly, MIT is not shaking in its boots, but I do think we have something here that is unique. We really do have undergraduates making significant contributions in our research. And the proof is in the pudding."

The newly graduated Beadle is now studying mechanical systems at Georgia Tech. Only half-joking, he calls the work he did under Weis "management by abandon." "Dr. Weis didn't stand over my shoulder, and he taught me that the devil is in the details," Beadle said. "I've gained an engineer's intuition, that gut feeling into what will work.

"At first, it seemed like I was fighting my way out of a paper bag. But then you realize that the task is really to find a new paper bag. And I did. I'm a problem solver." Beadle and Weis' modem will soon undergo field testing to see if it will hold up under drilling conditions, but for now, as it applies to Beadle, Weis would argue that his new fiber optic modem has already hit paydirt.