By Ray Scippa
One way to understand the extraordinary scope of Khalid Soofi's expertise is to refer to his official profile on Google Scholar. There the long list of his work stretches back 40 years.
'My background is in electrical engineering,' Soofi said. 'At university, I designed antennas and radar systems, and specialized radar systems called scatterometers.'
Soofi started out calibrating antenna systems for NASA's first space station, Sky Lab. One of his projects was using remote radar systems to find oil spills for the U.S. Navy.
'That might've been the project that attracted Conoco's attention. They called me in for an interview in Ponca City, Okla. Seeing their projects and labs for remote sensing blew me away and I said, 'Oh, I found my place!''
That was 1981; Soofi has been with the company ever since, celebrating his 40th anniversary on June 1, 2021.
Remote sensing is a widely-used discipline at ConocoPhillips. It involves geology, geomorphology and landforms; seismic data acquisition; engineering applications; monitoring surface conditions, surface environment and the environment in general.
'My work has touched on all of these major categories. That's probably one reason why I've been lucky enough to stay around for so long.'
Soofi's work on groundbreaking projects has set industry trends. One of the earliest involved using radar altimeter to map the complex surface of the ocean floor. During a time when Conoco was heavily involved in offshore exploration, the use of radar altimeter was a major step forward.
'Those early projects set the tone for how we use technology today.'
Soofi (far left) observes while technicians go through the quality control of Radar imagery of Irian Jaya, Indonesia. That part of the world is almost perpetually cloud covered and this was the first time radar imagery was deployed to generate a cloud-free image.Using satellites to track and attribute methane emissions was the first step in a process that eventually led to a ground-based system.
Focus on greenhouse gas emissions
When the European Space Agency's SCIAMACHY and Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellites began monitoring methane emissions around the world, Soofi realized the huge potential of using satellites to detect and mitigate emissions.
'But current satellites don't have the resolution to look for smaller leaks.'
Satellites collect data around the world daily but at a very low spatial resolution. Also, they cannot identify the source of emissions. Next, Soofi championed the use of airplanes, allowing coverage of large areas and getting closer to the target to see smaller leaks.
Then he thought, 'Why stop there? Why don't we get even closer to the target? We started working with drones, developing a sophisticated system to detect and pinpoint the source of small leaks.'
Drones (foreground) and airplanes (in the distance) bring remote sensing closer to the target.
None of these solutions overcame the limitation of sampling rate. Satellites collect data once a day, while data from planes and drones is collected on demand. The natural progression was to move to a continuous monitoring system on the ground.
'We had all the infrastructure in place to collect data, send it to the cloud, do all the processing, and send the results back to a dashboard. If we could put a device on the ground, we could be monitoring our sites continuously, like a home security camera.'
Since such a system was outside the business model of Scientific Aviation, the company ConocoPhillips works with for GHG detection, Soofi needed to convince them to try.
The resulting system is designed to continuously measure the background level on the ground and generate an alarm when anomalies are identified.
'As a detection device, it has proven its worth. We have been amazed at how well it performs that function.'
How the SOOFIE sensor got its name
Maintenance & Reliability Supervisor Amanda Morris recounted the story behind how SOOFIE sensors came to be named.
It began when Soofi challenged Scientific Aviation President & CEO Steve Conley to design an economically viable ground-based system. Existing systems cost thousands of dollars.
A SOOFIE sensor installed at Eagle Ford
'On the ground, you don't need the parts per billion precision that very expensive sensors give you,' Amanda said. 'If you can get parts per million and detect emissions outside of normal operating conditions and background level, then you're winning.'
Conley and his team produced a low-cost sensor within a system that self-powers using a solar panel. Deployed and tested on site at Eagle Ford, the sensors worked well.
'After that, we all went to dinner here in Kenedy, Texas,' said Amanda. 'There were six or seven of us. Soofi didn't make it. We started coming up with different names for the sensor when Sonia, Steve's wife, said 'it was Soofi's idea, so we need to name them Soofi sensors.' But I said it needed to stand for something. We were all scribbling on napkins, trying to come up with the best acronym, and we settled on Systematic Observation Of Facility Intermittent Emissions (SOOFIE). We had to stick an E on the end. We couldn't make it work without the E.'
The next day the entire team gathered in a conference room. Steve already had an emblem and a PowerPoint slide. The name SOOFIE floated into view with the Star Wars theme music playing.
'Soofi was so surprised,' said Amanda. 'I've never seen him so speechless.'
Putting family first
Soofi set work and life balance priorities at the very beginning of his career.
'I'm actually not very good at work if I have not made sure that I've taken care of my loved ones.
'At the same time, I love my job. I love the people that I work with, the projects, the technical challenges, the intellectual stimulation. When I go home, I want to be satisfied that I have done my job well so I can devote my time to the family.'
Soofi is acutely aware of his responsibility to business unit clients around the world seeking his expert advice.
'If I get a question - no matter how trivial it is - I do the best I can to make sure I've answered it to the point where they are fully satisfied and understand not only what the problem was, but what my solution is and what the limits of my solution are.
The Soofi family, including wife Naheed, son-in-law Nick, daughter Wafa, son Basil and grandson Ayan
'If you combine those things together, your family life, your dedication to the work and making sure you're satisfying your customers, I don't think you can go wrong.'
Khalid and Naheed were married 41 years ago.
'We met in 1976 and that was the end of me looking around. I knew I had found my soulmate.'
They have two children - daughter Wafa and son Basil, both professionals now with families of their own.
'I can't count my blessings enough, having wonderful kids who are educated and independent.'
Outside of work, Soofi has three hobbies.
'My passion is golf. I try to play as much as I can. I'm not really good at it, but I'm a decent enough to intellectually enjoy the game.'
His second passion is photography.
'I've been a photographer all my life. In school I would go into the darkroom and spend hours developing and printing black-and-white film. Now in the days of digital, I have a passion for bird photography. I live in the country and my backyard is my bird sanctuary.'
He uses his third hobby, woodworking in his garage shop, to work on small projects fixing or building things for Naheed. This he says, contributes to the secret of a long and successful marriage.
Roseate Spoonbill is one of the many birds Soofi has photographed. You can see more on his Instagram: @kas.Texas