Two Sandia National Laboratories engineers working on a way to make natural gas drilling equipment better say it also can help make lighter weight airplanes, better electric cars and earthquake monitoring systems.

Randy Normann and Joe Henfling have been working on electronic components for drilling that could handle temperatures of 600 degrees Fahrenheit for long periods.

They gave one to the U.S. Geological Survey to test in California – and geologists ended up capturing the devastating Dec. 26 Sumatra earthquake that triggered a tsunami and left nearly 183,000 people in 11 countries dead and 129,000 missing.

The engineers also realized the technology could help other areas.

Sandia developed the method for designing and manufacturing electronics components, such as computer chips, to withstand extreme pressure and temperature and still function. Norman and Henfling said their original goal was to help companies drill deeper for natural gas and geothermal energy.

“Current technology in that industry is limited to about 20,000 feet because after that the electronics get too hot and don’t work. If they want to go any deeper, they can’t see where they’re going,” Normann said. “Our technology lets them see much deeper.

“There are some wells targeted in the Gulf of Mexico at 35,000 feet, and this can help them get there.”

The Sandia researchers said electronic devices that aren’t heat-sensitive could help airplane designers make lightweight planes, thus saving about $30 million in fuel costs over the lifetime of each airplane.

“In most airplanes all the control electronics are in the cockpit with the pilot because they’re too sensitive to go anywhere else,” Normann said. “But if you can move them onto the engine where it’s hotter, that would save hundreds of wires and about 600 pounds of weight per aircraft.”

The technology also could prove useful for electronic cars to improve brakes’ response by putting electronics directly inside. That would give braking systems more power, requiring less force to operate, the engineers said.

“If you can do that you can eliminate hydraulics in a car,” Normann said. “Hydraulics use an oil-based material that has to be drained and recycled.”

A project called the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth, to study California’s famous fault, might be interested in adding the electronics.

“Their goal is to drill a well through the San Andreas fault so they can instrument and monitor a well as it is sheared in half,” Normann said. “That’s never been done before, but we think our electronics can withstand that without a problem. That will teach them more about how earthquakes work.”

The U.S. Geological Survey already discovered something new about earthquakes when it put the equipment in a deep well near a fault to test it for Sandia.

Water in the aquifer well ended up working like a seismometer. The earthquake moved the liquid around, then dropped the water table, Normann said.

“It appears the fractured rock in that well was altered by the earthquake,” he said. “This is stuff geologists have never seen before.”

That has broad implications for geologists.

“One issue they’re interested in is how do earthquakes communicate with each other,” Normann said. “Basically they feel the Earth vibrates and other fault zones sense it, creating new earthquakes. But there’s a growing theory that it’s a hydraulic process from fluids in faults around the world. This is just one data set, but it points to that.”

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