CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT.*fn*
Stone, Roberts, Black, Reed, Frankfurter, Douglas, Murphy, Jackson, Rutledge
MR. JUSTICE MURPHY delivered the opinion of the Court.
In issue here is the validity of United States Patent No. 1,877,504, relating to "the treatment of deep wells, such as oil, gas, brine or water wells, to increase the output therefrom," issued to John J. Grebe and Ross T. Sanford on September 12, 1932.
Petitioner, the owner of the patent, brought this suit against respondent for alleged infringement. Both the District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held the patent invalid for want of invention and denied relief. 139 F.2d 473.
Previously the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, in reversing the judgment of the District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma, had held the patent valid and infringed in a suit brought by petitioner against another party. Dow Chemical Co. v. Williams Bros. Well Treating Corp., 81 F.2d 495, cert. denied, 298 U.S. 690. The conflicting views of the appellate courts concerning the validity of the same patent led us to grant certiorari in this case, 322 U.S. 719, and oblige us to decide independently the factual issue of validity. Universal Oil Co. v. Globe Co., 322 U.S. 471, 473.
The stated object of the Grebe-Sanford patent is "to counteract some preventable natural causes for the decline of yield of a well" where the well has been drilled into a limestone or other calcareous formation. As oil is pumped from a well, the underground flow to the well decreases and the yield declines until pumping is no longer profitable. Yet it is known that when that point is reached there often remains embedded in the rock formation a great deal of oil unrecoverable by ordinary processes. Many methods have been suggested to recover this hidden oil. The forcing of water or gas into the rock formation, the heating of the surrounding rock and the use of explosives have all been proposed but found wanting in one way or another.
Eventually, however, the idea was conceived of using acid to dissolve the limestone, thus opening channels through which the oil could flow into the well. This idea first appears to have been developed in United States Patent No. 556,669, issued on March 17, 1896, to Herman Frasch, with a half interest being assigned to John W. Van Dyke. The essence of this patent was the introduction into the oil well of a large solution of hydrochloric acid under pressure, with fresh water being added later to force the acid further into the limestone. Frasch recommended the use of commercial hydrochloric acid containing from 30% to 40% by weight of the acid gas
HCl; he further recommended that the acid remain in the well for twelve hours. A suitably arranged packer was to be used to confine the acid to the lower or oil-yielding portion of the well hole.
Frasch also recognized that the hydrochloric acid was likely to corrode the metal well equipment. Hence the patent suggested that the regular well tubing be removed and that an enameled or lead-lined pipe be inserted to conduct the acid down into the well, "or it may be otherwise made proof against corrosion." An additional suggestion was that an alkaline liquid be introduced to neutralize the acid after it had performed its function.
Frasch's method proved successful in disintegrating limestone rock and increasing the flow of oil. The record shows that at least fourteen commercial wells near Lima, Ohio, were treated with this process in 1895 and 1896, resulting in substantial production increases in most instances. Wide publicity was given to these operations. But despite this success, Frasch and Van Dyke soon discontinued their work along these lines. The reasons for this abandonment are not clearly disclosed by the record. Respondent suggests personal reasons on the part of Frasch and Van Dyke and claims that the relatively undeveloped oil industry at that time had little use for such an invention. Petitioner, however, contends that ...