Microwaves to help extract oil

The Associated Press

Major defense contractor Raytheon Co. is selling microwave technology to a large oil field services company to extract oil reserves in the West’s vast underground shale deposits.

In a deal to be announced today, Schlumberger Ltd. is buying technology that Raytheon developed with Boston-based CF Technologies, 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 generated through the technology.


Some of the proceeds would be shared with CF Technologies.

Raytheon, based in Waltham, Mass., and Houston-based Schlumberger declined to disclose further details.

The world’s fifth-largest defense contractor has developed microwave technology that could become a key tool in unlocking the hard-to-extract oil reserves in the West, primarily on reserves scattered across federal lands in Colorado, Utah and southwest Wyoming.

Most of the attention is focused on that area because it is estimated to contain as much as 1.8 trillion barrels of oil trapped in shale, or three times the proven reserves of Saudi Arabia.

Of that, about 800 billion barrels are considered recoverable.

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.

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 higher prices, technological improvements and hopes of decreasing U.S. dependency on foreign oil.

Raytheon -- which invented microwaving food by accident in 1945 after a company engineer noticed waves from radar equipment had melted a chocolate bar in his pocket -- isn’t the only player using microwave technology to try to unlock the treasure.

Global Resource Corp., based in West Berlin, N.J., is taking a similar approach and in November announced a research agreement with a Pennsylvania State University professor to conduct research on commercializing its process.

Since 1996, Shell Frontier Oil & Gas Co. has conducted tests on private land in western Colorado.

Those tests involve baking shale rock in the ground with electric heating rods, then pumping the melted oil to the surface. Shell said any commercial development of the technology was several years away.

Raytheon’s technology also involves underground heating but uses microwaves beamed from transmitters lowered into shale.