Laser beams soon may be drilling oil and gas wells

Jan 14, 2004 01:00 AM

A revolutionary method for using laser beams to drill oil and gas wells moved a step closer to reality in the laboratories of the Colorado School of Mines.
The university announced it has acquired six laser technology patents from Boeing in a major step forward in the transfer of military laser uses to civilian applications. If the adaptation of technology borrowed from Reagan-era "Star Wars" military programs is successful, it will mark the first fundamental change to rotary drilling techniques since the concept was invented in Britain in 1845.
"It's a very, very sexy project," said Ramona Graves, the effort's spearhead and a professor of petroleum engineering at Mines. Lasers can slice through rock like a hot knife through butter, Graves said. They would be much cheaper, much faster and much more environmentally benign than conventional drilling rigs.

Armed with Boeing patents, Mines researchers expect to produce a prototype laser drill within the next two years. The technology is borrowed from military programs, in which airborne lasers were tested for shooting down missiles and destroying targets on the ground.
Although so far only lab tested, the idea of using lasers to change the way oil, gas, water and subsurface minerals are extracted has generated intense interest from drilling-services firms, including industry leaders Schlumberger and Halliburton.

Laser drilling, Graves said, would have several advantages over conventional drilling:
-- Costs could be at least 10 times lower and up to several hundred times less than wells drilled with rotary rigs. For example, a typical, 10,000-foot gas well in Wyoming's Wind River Basin costs about $ 350,000 to drill. Laser drilling would drop that cost to $ 35,000 or lower, Graves said.
-- A laser drill's "footprint" -- the amount of surface space it occupies -- could be as little as 100 square feet, or even less with some models.
-- The laser rigs could be transported to drilling sites in one semi-trailer load. Conventional rigs take up several thousand square feet of space and require numerous truck trips to haul equipment.
-- Lasers could drill a typical natural-gas well in about 10 days, compared with 100 days for some conventional wells.
"You're looking at three months of disruption versus a week or so of disruption with a laser drill," Graves said.
-- Lasers could be programmed for precise well diameters and depths. In addition, they could alternately drill coarsely to deliver mineral samples, finely to vaporize rock and leave no waste materials, or with intense heat to melt the walls of well bores, thus eliminating the need to place steel casing in wells.

Colorado School of Mines president John Trefny said the laser initiative "reaffirms Mines' cutting-edge research capabilities and its impact on issues critical to the world's development. The intellectual property Boeing is donating will help the school strengthen its leadership role in this area."
Graves said she is confident that Mines' laser technology will transfer from the lab to the proposed prototype. The benefit of Boeing's patent donation is not so much technical knowledge, she said, but eliminating the school's need to pay for a license to use the technology.

Neither Mines nor Boeing would disclose the estimated value of the patent donation. Boeing said it often donates technology for tax write-offs, good publicity and to build relationships with other researchers. In the 1980s, Boeing was developing lasers that could be mounted on its aircraft.
Although Boeing still has an interest in lasers for military and aerospace applications, it was not using the earlier technologies.
"Rather than let these things lie around dormant, we wanted them to go where there would be good applications," said Boeing spokesman Glen Golightly.

Source: Denver Post
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