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A Method To Size Gas-Liquid Horizontal Separators Handling Nonstable

Multiphase Streams
J.L. Hernandez-Martinez, Pemex; V. Martinez-Ortiz, Schlumberger

Copyright 2014, Society of Petroleum Engineers

This paper was prepared for presentation at the SPE Latin American and Caribbean Petroleum Engineering Conference held in Maracaibo, Venezuela, 2123 May
This paper was selected for presentation by an SPE program committee following review of information contained in an abstract submitted by the author(s). Contents
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any position of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, its officers, or members. Electronic reproduction, distribution, or storage of any part of this paper without the written
consent of the Society of Petroleum Engineers is prohibited. Permission to reproduce in print is restricted to an abstract of not more than 300 words; illustrations may
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The sizing procedures of all the process equipment in oil and gas industry share a common assumption:
the stream flowrate measured at the inlet is always constant or stable. This principle works fine for plants
where the process conditions are controlled, but it does not apply to primary production facilities where
the streams come from multiphase flowlines or wells. In a real horizontal gas-liquid separator, the inlet
stream flowrate is not constant and the liquid fraction fluctuates as a function of time. This fact must be
considered in the design procedure applied to these units.
The sizing procedure described here allows to size horizontal gas-liquid separators, considering
non-stable flowrate at the inlet, or fluctuations in the liquid fraction on the same stream. The method looks
for the best unit design to address these variations and also gets the smallest possible horizontal gas-liquid
The proposed method consists of two parts. The first one is solved by a dynamic multiphase flow
simulator which allows modeling the multiphase flow in the pipeline and predicting flowrate and liquid
fraction fluctuations at the separator inlet. In the second part, the horizontal separator sizing is solved
following a modified Svcek and Monnery (1993) method. It is adapted to take into account a non-stable
stream at the inlet, using the surge volume calculated by dynamic multiphase simulation. Other wellknown methods are also reviewed, such as Arnold (1986). Relationships between the Svcek and Monnery
approach and other methods are depicted.
The method is illustrated sizing a gas-light oil separator located in an offshore production facility where
the feed stream is identified as non-stable. This behavior is taken into account, and the effect in the vessel
volume is numerically evaluated. This approach allows obtaining the smallest separator volume based on
dynamic simulation results; as compared to the sizing based on overdesign rules.
The approach depicted here can be applied for sizing horizontal gas-liquid separators in which the
dynamic nature of the multiphase flow must be taken into account and the smallest possible volume is


Figure 1Scheme for a gas-liquid separator

The sizing of separators is a common task on production facilities design. There are several procedures published in the literature to size tanks [2, 3,
5, and 6]. All of them share the same basic principle: stream flowing to the separator is stable. This
assumption should be correct for equipment to be
Figure 2Forces over a liquid drop
installed in process plants, but for primary separators where the processed stream comes from wells
or multiphase flowlines, this assumption cannot be
applied. Multiphase streams exhibit a nonstable behavior due to terrain or hydrodynamic slugging. For
design purposes, the separator is split in three stages (or sections) [5]:

Primary stage. This is a mechanical operation; it uses an inlet diverter so that the momentum of
the liquid in the gas causes the largest droplets to impinge on the diverter, forming droplets which
are separated by gravity. The gas stream flows to the disengagement section.
Secondary stage. Liquid drops immersed in the gas stream are separated by gravity. This
separation is governed by the settling liquid drop velocity inside the gas phase. This velocity must
be higher than gas stream velocity to allow the drop settle to the liquid phase.
Tertiary Stage. It occurs on the mist eliminator. This is a device that allows small size droplets
coalesce to larger drops, which fall down by gravity to the liquid phase.
These design stages or sections are shown in Figure 1.
Primary stage design is based on a simple volumetric balance, following some well-known rules (to be
described below). The most important parameter to design the secondary stage is to obtain the settling
drop velocity inside the gas stream. This velocity can be calculated performing a balance around each
liquid droplet. This balance takes into account two factors, the gravity and the drag forces applied by the
gas stream. Figure 2 depicts both forces; FG and FD are gravity and drag components, respectively. Liquid
droplets settling at a constant velocity known as terminal velocity, calculated by Equation 3
Equation 1
If UV UT liquid droplets will settle. As a thumb rule, the allowable vertical velocity has a value
between 0.75 UT and UT. Equation 3 can be rewritten as Sauders and Brown suggested [5].


Figure 3K values for separators (taken from Reference 2)

Equation 2
Equation 3
K is the terminal velocity constant. For practical reasons, very small droplets cannot be separated only
by gravity. Coalescent devices are used (mist eliminators) to force this separation. This constant, K, is not
easily predicted theoretically, empirical correlations are preferred. There are several published papers
depicting procedures to obtain K [1, 3 and 6], but many of them should be applied to separators in process
plants not in primary oil-gas facilities.

Theoretical model to calculate terminal velocity

Terminal velocity can be calculated for separators without mist eliminator using Equation 5, the drag
coefficient, CD, is obtained using Equation 6.
Equation 4

Where Dp is in feet, in lb/ft3 and in cP. Usually the drop diameter is given in microns (1 micron
3.28084 10-6 ft). A well-known sizing procedure was proposed by Arnold [2]. This approach is limited
to separators with a normal level equivalent to 50% of total vessel volume. An alternative procedure to
calculate the terminal velocity constant is proposed by this author. The terminal velocity constant is
calculated using curves shown in Figure 3. Constant gas viscosity and 100-micron droplets are assumed.
To avoid this graphical step, Equation 7 is proposed to calculate this constant[4].
Equation 5

Equation 6


Table 1Residence time according to API 12 J

Residence (holdup) time
Oil density

Time (min)

Above 34 API
Between 20 and 30 API
Between 10 y 20 API

1.0 2.0
2.0 4.0

Figure 4 Surge volume curve as a function of drain rate

S is the relative gas density, P, the pressure in psia, API is oil density and T the temperature in Rankine.
K is calculated using Equation 7. Arnolds constant is a separator parameter, not a Sauders-Brown
constant. To convert Arnolds K to K, the following relationship is proposed [4].
Equation 7

Theoretical model (Equation 6) and Arnolds model have similar results.

Holdup and surge separator volumes

According to Svcek and Monnery [5], separator holdup is defined as the time it takes to reduce the liquid
level from normal (NLL) to empty (LLL) with a constant outlet drain rate, and a closed inlet. Holdup is
the capacity to keep a constant outlet flowrate interrupting the inlet flowrate. In other hand, surge is the
time it takes to raise the level from normal (NLL) to maximum (HLL), with a constant inlet flowrate and
a closed outlet stream. Surge is the capacity to accumulate liquid if the outlet stream is closed and the inlet
is open. There are several recommendations to state the holdup and surge times. These definitions work
fine for process vessels or balance tanks, but no for primary oil-gas separators. To apply Svcek and
Monnery procedure, some redefinitions are done. The holdup time is replaced by the residence time. This
parameter assures gas-oil separation in the primary stage. Some suggestions to set the residence time are
shown in Table 1 [1].
For foamy oils the residence time can be increased up to 15 min. Residence times between 2 and 5 min
are common for all the separators in the field [1].

Surge volume for nonstable multiphase streams

On primary separators where the feed comes from wells or multiphase flowlines, slugging can occur. As
a consequence, the feed flowrate exhibit a nonstable behavior, liquid fraction at separator inlet fluctuates
over the time. This fact does not agree the sizing procedure basic assumption, steady flow rate at the inlet.
To adapt Svcek and Monnery procedure to nonstable streams, surge volume is redefined. Surge volume
is the maximum liquid accumulation in the separator at constant outlet drain rate. This volume is reserved
to catch and damp the slugging occurring in the inlet stream. The objective is to design a separator
according to the residence time and disengagement gas section design rules. To perform the surge volume
calculations, a dynamic multiphase simulator is mandatory. A detailed description of liquid and gas
flowrates feeding the separator is required [4].
The maximum accumulation, defined as the surge volume, is given by Equation 8 [4].


Table 2Typical L/D values

Table 3Typical minimum level in horizontal separators

P (psig)


D (ft)

LLL (in)

0.0 250.0
250.0 500.0




Equation 8
Where VSurge is the surge volume, , liquid accumulation measured at a fixed position (typically
flowline outlet), and Qdrain is the constant outlet separator drain rate. Surge volume can be estimated based
on simulation results using an Excel spreadsheet. Optionally, this value can be calculated directly by some
codes. Surge volume usually is reported in curves as shown in Figure 4. Surge volumes make sense for
drain flowrates higher than the average liquid flowrate measured at flowline outlet.

Sizing procedure for nonstable multiphase streams

This procedure was initially described by Svcek and Monnery [5] and was applied to size separators in
process plants. The modification presented here adapts it to separators handling nonstable streams. Some
changes occur in the theoretical basis exposed previously. In horizontal separators, the liquid droplets are
influenced by a drag force in the horizontal direction; this force is not opposed to the gravity as in vertical
separators (see Figure 2). As a consequence, the horizontal velocity is greater than the terminal velocity
(in the vertical direction). Liquid dropout time to go over the horizontal separator distance must be higher
than the settling time in the vertical direction.
Equation 9
Equation 9 can be rewritten explicitly to the horizontal velocity.
Equation 10
Usually the L/HV is greater than one for horizontal separators and the terminal velocity must be
corrected. Theoretical or Arnolds models are recommended to calculate the terminal velocity constant.
Values obtained using these models are more conservatives than other cited in the literature [2, 3 and 6].
This sizing procedure is iterative; the separator diameter is not explicitly calculated. For this procedure the
design input data are the mass flowrates and fluid properties. These equations can be easily adapted to the
volumetric flowrates available in the field. Actual flowrates are required, no standard flowrates measured
at stock tank conditions. This rule must be applied to gas and liquid densities.
1. Calculate the volumetric gas flowrate.
Equation 11
2. Calculate the volumetric liquid flowrate.
Equation 12
3. Calculate the gas terminal velocity. UV 0.75 UT, for a conservative design (Equation 2).
4. Calculate the holdup volume, based on residence time.


Table 4 Cylindrical height and area conversions

Y a/A, X h/D
a 4.75593010-5
b 3.924091
c 0.174875
d 6.358805
e 5.668973
f 4.018448
g 4.916411
h 1.801705
i 0.145348
Conversion a/A h/D
Y h/D, X a/A
a 0.00153756
b 26.787101
c 3.299201
d 22.923932
e 24.353518
f 14.844824
g 36.999376
h 10.529572
i 9.892851

Table 5Criteria to select vessel head



D15.0 ft, P100.0 psig

D15.0 ft for all P
D15.0 ft, P 100.0 psig

Elliptical heads, 2:1

Hemispheric heads
Dished heads

Table 6 Wall thickness



Elliptical heads, 2:1
Hemispheric heads
Dished heads

Table 7Surface area


Surface area

Elliptical heads, 2:1
Hemispheric heads
Dished heads


Equation 13
5. Calculate the surge volume, based on dynamic simulation results (Equation 8).
6. Obtain an estimate of separator diameter.
Equation 14
Table 2 shows typical values for L/D relationship to horizontal separators, as a function of
operating pressure.
Round to the nearest 6 inches. Calculate the cross-sectional area.
Equation 15
7. Calculate the minimum liquid level, based on Table 3.
Alternatively, Equation 17 can be used.
Equation 16
Where D is in feet and round to the nearest inch. If D 4.0 ft, HLLL 9 in.
8. Based on HLLL/D calculateALLL/D using Table 4.
9. CalculateHV. If there is no mist eliminator, the minimum height of the vapor disengagement area
(AV) is the larger of 0.2D and 1.0 ft. If there is mist eliminator the minimum height of HV is the
larger 0.2 D and 2.0 ft. CalculateAV based on HV.
10. Calculate the minimum length to contain holdup and surge volumes.
Equation 17
11. Calculate the dropout time.


Figure 5Gas-liquid separator dimensions

Table 8 Input data

Inlet temperature (C)
Outlet pressure (kg/cm2)
Outlet pressure (C)
Oil flowrate (BPD)
Gas flowrate (MMscfd)
Water flowrate (BPD)
GOR (Sm3/Sm3)
Density (API)
Length (km)


Figure 6 Gas-liquid separator dimensions (cross-area view)

Equation 18
12. Calculate the actual gas velocity.
Equation 19
13. Calculate the minimum required length to gas-liquid disengagement section.
Equation 20
14. IfLLMIN, then L LMIN. Gas liquid separation is the controlling parameter, this result in some
extra holdup volume.
If LMINL, the increase HV and repeat from step 9.
If LLMIN, the design is acceptable.
If LLMIN, holdup is controlling the design, L can only be decreased and LMIN increased ifHV
is decreased. HV may only be decreased if it is greater than the minimum depicted in step 9.
Calculations would be repeated from the step 9 with reduced HV.
Calculate L/D. If L/D6.0, increase D and repeat from step 6. If L/D1.5, decrease D and repeat
from step 6.
15. Calculate shell and heads thickness. Select heads type according to Table 5.
Calculate wall thickness according to Table 6.
P is the design pressure, in psig (typically 10 to 15 % above the operating pressure). D is the
diameter in inches, S the material stress in psi, E weld efficiency (typically 0.85) and y tC in the
allowable corrosion, in inches. Wall thickness must be rounded to the nearest commercial
thickness. Calculate head and shell surface according to Table 7.
16. Calculate the approximate vessel weight.


Figure 7Pipeline scheme

Figure 8 Pressure at wellhead

Figure 9 Total liquid flowrate at pipeline outlet

Table 9 Surge volumes for several drain rates


Average flowrate multiplier

Surge volume (m3)



Equation 21
Where AS and AH are shell and head areas respectively.
17. Increment and decrease the diameter in 6 inches, repeat the calculation until L/D has ranged
between 1.5 and 6.0.
18. With the optimum design (minimum weight) calculate normal and high liquid level.


Table 10 Separator size for several surge volumes




Vessel volume

Vessel volume increase







Equation 22
Equation 23
Calculate ANLL based on HNLL.
Separator dimensions are shown in Figure 5 and Figure 6. This procedure was coded in an Excel
spreadsheet; it is available contacting the authors.

Case study
The procedure depicted here was used to size a separator for an oil field located in the Gulf of Mexico.
Table 8 shows some general input data [4].
Figure 7 shows a schematic diagram of this flowline. Separator is located at flowline outlet.

Results and discussion

A nonstable flowrate is observed in this flowline. Figure 8 shows wellhead pressure and Figure 9 total
liquid flowrate measured at flowline outlet. Hydrodynamic slugging was identified by the dynamic
multiphase simulator. Trends observed in Figure 8 and Figure 9 confirms that assumption. A slug tracking
algorithm was used to calculate individual slugs generated in this flowline. Four cases were analyzed, in
the first one, the surge volume is neglected. In the additional cases, the surge volume was calculated for
a constant drain rate. Table 9 shows the surge volumes calculated for a drain rate 1, 1.2 and 1.4 times the
average total liquid flowrate, measured at separator inlet [4].
Separator sizes for the analyzed cases are shown in Table 10.
Volume increases around 52% if a drain rate equal to the average total liquid flow rate is used. This
increased volume is reduced if the drain rate is increased. The drain rate cannot be increased arbitrary; it
is function of the facilities downstream the separator. A thumb rule states that a drain rate 20% above the
average total liquid flow rate is acceptable for design purposes. If a drain rate 1.2 times the average total
liquid flowrate is used, total vessel volume increases 13%. If a 1.4 factor is used, the total vessel volume
increases 9%, this is a marginal reduction in the vessel size. A 1.2 factor seems to be fine for this design.
The separator sized following this procedure will handle efficiently the slugging generated in the
multiphase flowline.

A procedure to size gas-liquid separators, based on Svcek and Monnery approach, is depicted in this
paper. This modified procedure is adapted to size separators handling nonstable multiphase streams. This
procedure, replaces the original Svcek and Monnerys definitions of separator holdup and surge volumes,
by other characteristic parameters related to slugging. Surge volume is calculated using a dynamic
multiphase code, standard steady state tools cannot predict nonstable. Surge volume is a function of the
separator liquid drain rate.



The procedure was applied to size a separator for a field located in Gulf of Mexico. If the slugging
effect is included in the sizing routine, an additional volume is required to catch and damp the slugs
generated in the flowline. In the studied case, if the drain rate is equal to the average total liquid flowrate,
the separator requires around of 52% extra volume. This additional volume decreases if the drain rate
increases. Vessel volume increases 13 and 9% if a drain rate 1.2 and 1.4 times the average total liquid
flowrate are used.
Drag coefficient
Drop diameter
Weld efficiency
Gas-oil relationship
Vertical separator distance
Liquid level
Time step
Terminal velocity constant
Separator constant
Liquid phase
Qdrain Separator drain flowrate
Gas relative density
Gas relative density
Maximum allowed stress
Residence time
Time, thickness
Allowed corrosion
Terminal Velocity
Allowable vertical velocity
Volume, vapor section on sizing procedure
VSurge Surge volume
Mass flowrate, total vessel weight

Accumulative volume measured in a fixed position

Dropout time
Gas viscosity
Gas density
Vapor density

1 API, Specification for oil gas separators, API specification 12J, October 1989.
2 Arnold, K, M. Steward, Surface production operations, Gulf Publishing Co., 1986



3 Gerunda, Arthur, How to size liquid-vapor separators, Chemical Engineering, May 1981.
4 Hernndez, Jos Luis, Dimensionamiento de separadores para lneas multifsicas con transporte
de flujo inestable empleando resultados de simulacin dinmica (in Spanish). Thesis, ESIA, IPN,
Mexico 2009.
5 Svcek, W, W, Monnery, Design two-phase separators within the right limits, Chemical Engineering Progress, October 1993.
6 Watkins, R. N., Sizing separators and accumulators, Hydrocarbon Processing, November 1967