For the third straight year, a West Virginia University Department of Mining Engineering research project aimed at increasing the safety and efficiency of coal mining and mine drilling operations has received an R&D Top 100 Award from R&D Magazine.

Professor Syd Peng and associate professors Felicia Peng and Yi Luo won the award in partnership with Stolar Horizon Inc. of Raton, N.M., for their development of a real-time communications system. Known as the Data Transmission System, it facilitates high-speed data exchange between the surface and the drill string used to drill into coal seams prior to mining.

Drilling into the coal seam is necessary to allow harmful methane gases to escape before mining operations can begin, Peng explained. The most common technology in current use for this purpose is longhole directional drilling, which involves drilling holes as long as 5,000 feet. This type of drilling is accomplished mainly by trial and error and requires constant repositioning of the bit to keep it in the coal seam.

The new technology replacing trial and error involves radar sensors coupled to the drill pipe or tubing, he said. The information gathered by the sensors is transmitted to a computer outside, and this computer automatically determines and directs the course of the drill bit. The result is an increase in the efficiency of the entire drilling operation.

In addition, the radar sensors on the drill string provide useful information to drill operators about the rocks and coal in areas being drilled. The system maps the geology of the area, measuring the thickness of the coal seam and the type of rocks on the mine roof and floor.

This information allows for the design of safer mines, Peng said. For example, if an area of roof rock is discovered to be weak, the mine will be designed with more roof supports in that area. This mapping technology was developed by the same team of WVU mining engineering faculty members and won the R&D Top 100 Award in 2005.

A reliable data transmission between the drill string and the surface control unit over long distances is the key to tapping the full potential of these drilling technologies,he said.With all of the information that this system will provide, the risks of mining will be greatly reduced, especially in adverse geological conditions.

Peng and his colleagues won the R&D Top 100 Award for an earlier stage of this research in 2004 as well. The technology is now complete and is being tested underground.

The team will accept the award in Chicago on Oct. 19.