A major defense contractor is selling technology to a large oilfield-services company that hopes microwaves will someday be a key tool to...
BOSTON — A major defense contractor is selling technology to a large oilfield-services company that hopes microwaves will someday be a key tool to unlock the vast but hard-to-extract oil reserves in the West’s underground shale deposits.
Much as a microwave oven heats food, Raytheon’s technology relies on microwaves to generate underground heat and melt a waxy substance in the shale called kerogen so that it can be converted into oil.
Carbon dioxide heated and pressurized into a liquid form then is used to extract the oil from the rock and carry it to a well.
The world’s fifth-largest defense contractor isn’t the only company focusing on microwaves or other heat-generating technologies to address an engineering challenge that oil companies have tried to crack for decades — so far with no efficient, environmentally sensitive method that’s proved commercially viable, despite rising oil prices.
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In a deal to be announced today, oilfield-services company Schlumberger is buying technology Raytheon developed with CF Technologies, based in Boston, which supplied expertise to extract oil using so-called “supercritical” liquid carbon dioxide.
Lee Silvestre, a Raytheon vice president, said Schlumberger was paying an undisclosed upfront fee along with royalties that could extend “multiple decades” for any revenue Schlumberger generates through the technology. Some of the proceeds would be shared with CF Technologies.
Rod Nelson, a Schlumberger vice president, said Raytheon’s technology shows potential to generate a more efficient return than other extraction methods, as measured by the amount of energy expended to produce oil.
Schlumberger hopes to move beyond the lab tests Raytheon and CF Technologies have conducted and eventually try out the procedure at an underground oil-shale deposit.
Nelson said the company would “invest a fair amount of time and effort and money in developing it further, so we can eventually deploy it in the field.”
Raytheon and oil companies began exploring ways to extract oil from shale decades ago, but many efforts were shelved in the 1980s as oil prices and supplies stabilized.
Some projects — including Raytheon’s — were revived in recent years because of spiking prices, technological improvements and hopes of decreasing U.S. dependency on foreign oil.
Most of the attention is focused on oil-shale reserves scattered across federal lands in Colorado, Utah and southwest Wyoming — an area estimated to contain up to 1.8 trillion barrels of oil trapped in shale, or three times the proven reserves of Saudi Arabia. Of that, roughly 800 billion barrels is considered recoverable.
Raytheon claims it can retrieve four to five barrels of oil for every barrel of oil consumed in the process. Other methods have reported 1 ½ to three barrels.
Because microwaves can generate heat faster than convection heating, shale can be heated to extract oil within a month or two of beginning production activities, rather than a year or longer for other methods, Raytheon says.