Quieter, cooler drilling from firm's new plastics

General manager of TD Tech Geoff Murray.
General manager of TD Tech Geoff Murray.

For part five in a series on innovative Taranaki businesses, Susan Strongman talks to Geoff Murray of TD Tech about little gadgets that he hopes will make a big difference in the oil and gas industry.

The office of TD Tech is not what you'd expect the office of a tech startup to look like.

Nestled close to the tree line of the Kaitake Range, at the end of a long driveway with a million-dollar view of the Taranaki coast, the company's general manager Geoff Murray and a rotund corgi dog welcome me into their office-come- home.

On a coffee table in the rambling homestead's beige-decorated living area sits a number of bright blue plastic gadgets, reminiscent of oversized bangles from the 1980s.

The gadgets were invented by Murray and his TD Tech colleagues.

Softly spoken and tidily dressed in a plaid shirt and dark trousers, the Taranaki-born man patiently explains how his products work.

Murray says he hopes many of the products - downhole devices like centralisers, stabilisers and soft banding - will become mainstream in the oil industry, where they are used.

It has happened for him before.

In about 1996 Murray was part of the establishment, and owned shares in tech-startup Austoil Technology, which in 1998 was awarded a Trade New Zealand export commendation for earning $5 million in overseas sales during its first two years of business.

Murray, who was the company's technical services manager, was involved in the development of friction reducing technology that allowed highly deviated and horizontal wells to be drilled over greater distances.

In 1999, Weatherford International announced it had bought Austoil Technology and Murray took a three- year job for the company in Houston, Texas, before returning to New Zealand in 2003, when he began to develop the property from which he now lives and works.

After a stint as a consultant for Mighty River Power in Rotorua, he returned to Taranaki and in September 2012, with $500,000 paid up capital and a group of six shareholders, TD Tech was born.

"The work we do is primarily in the oil industry - anywhere oil is drilled for," Murray says.

The company develops enabling technology, mostly drilling-related products that enable customers to do more than they otherwise would.

The products are fabricated at Inglewood's Falcon Engineering, which is owned by TD Tech shareholder Greg Trowbridge.

Murray says his desire to invent comes from wanting to make things better.

"It just comes from not being satisfied with the status quo and trying to find solutions to problems, or in some cases just trying to do things differently."

He says the difficulty in what he does comes from the fact that many of his ideas seem counter-intuitive.

Using plastic in place of steel to cover drill pipe and drill pipe tool joints is a case in point.

When drilling for oil, an enormous amount of pressure is put on the drill pipe joints, Murray says.

"Normally drill pipe has steel hard facing on the tool joints because if they wear out the whole connection is compromised and the drill string will break."

But TD Tech has created a polymer plastic banding that Murray says dramatically reduces counter-face wear on the casing.

In addition, when drilling certain wells a phenomenon called heat checking can occur.

Temperatures generated by friction of up to 700 degrees Celsius can heat the pipe inside the hole if it comes into contact with the wall. When the pipe comes away from the contact point it is quenched by the much cooler drilling mud, which can cause steel or the drill pipe tool joints to crack.

According to Murray, however, polymer simply can't heat check.

To prove his point, a trip out to Falcon Engineering to see the company's "number eight wire test rig" in action is made.

TD Tech design and development engineer Kurt Doidge fires-up the machine, which is essentially a lathe with a weighted lever attached.

Doidge puts the soft banding on the lathe against a steel casing under various pressures, and a dull grey sludge of water-based drilling mud with added grit is pumped over the spinning object.

He says after about 12 hours of running the test rig non-stop, the temperature of the mud being circulated over the surface of the soft banding gets up to about 42 degrees.

In contrast, after running a smaller scale test rig with steel banding for about two minutes, smoke rises from the contact point and the drilling mud has heated up to about 80 degrees.

Murray says an oil and gas company has already used this product in a downhole trial and will shortly be using it again in some extended reach wells.

The banding is injection moulded directly onto the drill pipe and Trowbridge of Falcon engineering, which amongst other things specialises in steel banding, came up with the idea.

Ideally, Falcon will manufacture for TD Tech shipping container-sized structures containing injection moulding machines so that soft banding and other products can be applied on-site.

Another polymer product, the python, is named after the snake because it is moulded directly onto the drill pipe at about 300 degrees. When it cools it shrinks and it grips onto the pipe. The multi-purpose, rotating, drilling stabiliser's four-piece mould was primarily developed by Falcon staff member Steve Holland using computer-aided design and computer- aided manufacturing software.

The python costs somewhere between $US200 to $US250 a pop and Murray says for an extended reach well customers would need to use as many as 2000 along the drill string.

The tube-shaped product is designed to reduce torque and drag. Its twisted ridges make it look like large, blue piece of licorice.

The shape of the python means it acts like an archimedes screw pump, rotating with the drill string, lifting mud and cuttings away from the drill head and back up the annulus.

Another benefit is its ability to reduce noise.

"These days, noise is quite a major issue," Murray says.

"If we can have plastic on the steel pipe, we can reduce the noise quite substantially.

"Often when they're tripping out a hole and racking back the pipe it's sort of 'clang clang clang' all night. For the neighbours it's not much fun."

It can also keep the drill string off the wall of the hole, by putting more points of support along the pipe, therefore reducing the risk of vibration.

Murray, Doidge and the team are working on about 10 concepts at the moment.

"Three of those are not fully developed, they're still ideas. We have lots of other things we could work on but need to concentrate on what we've got," he says.

Most of the products created by the company are patent-pending and some of Murray's ideas have been in the pipeline for years.

The idea for the python goes back about 12 years, he says, showing me a prototype made out of resin coated paper that looks a bit like a wooden ornament bought from a Balinese market.

Before Austoil Technology, Murray worked with Doidge's father at Fitzroy Engineering.

"I had done a course on engineering plastics and thought there was an opportunity to use polymers to make the products we were envisioning."

Many of the "simple and effective" ideas that he came up with would not have been possible using steel, prohibited by cost.

"Polymers have moved on a lot since that time," he says.

"If you spend enough money you get some pretty amazing ones. Some are up to $200 a kilogram, they have amazing properties."

Murray's passion for polymer is reminiscent of the plastics scene in 1967 film The Graduate, and he admits that some eyebrows were raised when he first started taking about the synthetic organic solids.

"There was skepticism when we started up."

If the success to Austoil Technology is anything to go by, he is likely to do all right.

At the moment about 90 per cent of TD Tech's sales are in New Zealand, with the other 10 per cent going to Australia and the US.

Murray reminds me they have only been in business for 18 months and only in last 12 months have they begun selling.

"We've got a pretty full order book at the moment. That would be an understatement. So we need to get through the next couple of months," he says.

After that, the company intends to tackle the world market in a very focused way.

"We know where there are particular opportunities."

At the moment they have interest from three original equipment manufacturing companies and three major service companies.

Murray believes in TD Tech's products and says they have the potential to save companies a lot of money.

"As a general rule these tools are cost effective. They pay for themselves easily."

Back in the beige room on the edge of Egmont National park, I begin to realise the array of blue bangley things sitting atop the coffee table might just be a goldmine.

Taranaki Daily News