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The Next-Generation Separator:

Changing the Rules

Traditionally, operators have been forced to wait until all drilling and completion
fluids have flowed from a newly drilled reservoir before streaming flow to the
separator for handling and measurement. The result has been long delays in obtaining
information about flow rate and fluid characteristics. Recent changes to basic
components of separator design are eliminating these delays and providing operators
with more-accurate results.

Paul Sims Well tests are performed in an attempt to quan- Though this process has served the industry
Clamart, France tify a reservoir’s potential oil, water and gas well for many years, it has shortcomings. For
flow rates. These tests may be performed at example, once engineers determine the well has
Oilfield Review Autumn 2010: 22, no. 3.
Copyright © 2010 Schlumberger.
any point in a field’s life cycle: during explora- eliminated drilling mud and debris, they redirect
For help in preparation of this article, thanks to Francis tion and appraisal, development or production. fluids from the bypass line to the separator inlet,
Allouche, Clamart, France; and David Harrison and Richard Information gleaned from well tests and other which destabilizes flow. This disruption induces a
Byrd, Sugar Land, Texas, USA.
CleanPhase and SmartWeir are marks of Schlumberger.
measurements is essential for accurate reservoir delay because flow must be restabilized before
characterization and the design of strategies to useful measurements may be taken. Additionally,
optimize new developments or to improve well because the well effluent is being flowed into a
and field performance.1 low-pressure tank during cleanup, the technician
Until recently, flow rate and fluid characteris- must control the flow rate and pressures at the
tics could not be quantified using separator mea- surface using an adjustable choke. This less-than-
surements until after well cleanup—the period optimal rate extends the time required to lift
during which debris and nonhydrocarbon fluids fluids to the surface and clean up the well.
introduced into the wellbore and the formation Knowledge of production history over the
by drilling or perforating activity are flowed out entire test period, including cleanup, is neces-
of the formation. The reason for this delay is that sary to perform modern well test interpretation.
conventional separators are not designed to pro- Having a detailed production history helps apply
cess the large amounts of water and solids that the concept of deconvolution in test interpreta-
make up the bulk of cleanup effluent. tion and allows analysts to see deeper into the
The duration of the cleanup, during which non- reservoir.2 Test results are less certain when flow
reservoir fluids are routed around the separator rate data and information about produced vol-
through a bypass manifold to a low-pressure surge umes are missed as a consequence of bypassing
tank, can be hours or days. Then, once the test the separator during the cleanup period.
operator determines the well is delivering only res- Moreover, it is important for engineers to be able
ervoir fluids, the flow at the manifold is manually to monitor the progress of the cleanup period,
diverted to the separator and operators can begin which cannot be done accurately if the data are
taking flow measurements. not acquired and recorded properly.

50 Oilfield Review
A Long Tradition of Service Conventional Separator
In conventional separators, fluid flows into one end
Safety valve Coalescing plates Mist Gas line
of a cylindrical vessel where it strikes a steel deflec- extractor
tor plate. The combination of expanded volume and Inlet breaker Deflector plate Foam breaker
reduced velocity allows gravity to begin the natural Effluent
separation process of reservoir fluids—water, oil inlet
and gas—of varying density.3 The efficiency of this
methodology is time dependent, so the key to opti-
mal phase separation is retention time. The longer
the fluids can be held within the vessel, the more
complete the separation.
To hold the fluids for a sufficient length of time
in traditional vessels, weir plates create separate Oil-level
controller
sections in the bottom of the separator. In the first Water-level Water line and float
controller and float Oil line
section after the inlet, oil and water gather at the
Weir plate Vortex breaker
bottom of the vessel; oil rises to the top and flows
over the weir plate into a second section while the
heavier water remains behind at the bottom of the
CleanPhase Separator
vessel in the first section. As the fluids are allowed
Radar system
to reside longer in the separator, gas is able to
escape into the empty space above the liquids and
is released through a mist extractor in the top of
the vessel. The rising oil and water levels lift floats
that, at a preset level, trigger pneumatically actu-
ated valves at the bottom of the vessel. This allows
oil and water to drain into separate metered lines
as gas exits through the outlet at the top of the
separator. Given the relatively similar densities of
oil and water, designing a float capable of auto-
matically controlling the water outlet is problem-
atic and most operators must manually drain the Sand jet line Solids weir SmartWeir
Water line system and
water leg. Antifoam wall Oil line oil intake
Although this system has been used satisfacto- > Conventional and CleanPhase separators. Both conventional (top) and CleanPhase separators
rily for more than 25 years, it has significant draw- (bottom) are designed so that as the effluent enters the vessel, the fluid is retained long enough for
backs. Since the vessel is designed for reservoir the oil to separate from and float to the top of the water. This process is enhanced by deflector plates
fluids flow, it cannot accommodate the volumes of that slow flow velocity and by coalescing plates that gather oil into larger droplets. In the conventional
water and debris that characterize cleanup fluids, separator, oil then flows over a weir into a separate section of the vessel while the water remains
in another compartment. Mechanical water- and oil-level controller arms—with attached floats
and, as described earlier, bypassing the system that are lifted by the rising fluid—trigger the valves (not shown) that release oil and water along
costs rig time. Additionally, oil and water surges their respective lines. At a prescribed height they cause the release of gas or air pressure and the
may occur at any time throughout the flow test actuation of the pneumatic valves. Mist extractors remove oil droplets from the gas phase before
period. A sudden increase in produced water may gas exits the separator through a line on the top of the vessel to an orifice plate meter (not shown).
Safety valves allow gas to escape into the atmosphere rather than overpressure the vessel. The
result in water being discharged with the oil as the CleanPhase separator replaces the traditional weir plate with a SmartWeir device whose height
first compartment is quickly flooded. can be adjusted to accommodate the dominant phase; the SmartWeir device includes the oil intake.
To counter these possibilities, Schlumberger Traditional mechanical level controllers are replaced by a two-component radar system that detects
the gas/oil and the oil/water interface. These measurements are linked to the total liquid level and
engineers have developed the CleanPhase well
oil-layer thickness set points and provide signals that regulate the position of the oil and water valves.
test separator to handle fluid flow during the At the bottom of the vessel, a separate solids weir collects solids that often accompany fluids during
cleanup and reservoir test periods (right). This cleanup. The solids may be removed through the sand jet line.
new separator has four features that distinguish
it from traditional separators: It uses SmartWeir
phase separation technology to replace fixed weir
plates, radar signals rather than floats to activate 1. For more on well testing: Aghar H, Carie M, Elshahawi H, 3. Katapodis L: “Oil and Gas Separation Theory, Application
Gomez JR, Saeedi J, Young C, Pinguet B, Swainson K, and Design,” paper SPE 6470, presented at the Oklahoma
the control valves and Coriolis mass flowmeters Takla E and Theuveny B: “The Expanding Scope of Well City Regional Meeting, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA,
rather than traditional volume flowmeters; it also Testing,” Oilfield Review 19, no. 1 (Spring 2007): 44–59. February 21–22, 1977.
has a compartment designed to collect and dis- 2. Deconvolution is a mathematical operation that, in this
case, uses surface rates to transform wellhead pressure
pose of solids. measurements to an interpretable form.

Autumn 2010 51
Upper Position Lower Position
100 100

90 90

80 e 80

70 70
64% 64%

Vessel ID, %

Vessel ID, %
60 60

50 50

40 40
35% 35%
30 30

20 20

10 10

0 0

> SmartWeir pneumatic positioner. By manually setting the angular deflection e of the positioner (blue) on its support arm (purple) using an electro-
pneumatic loop, it is possible to move the oil intake (red), attached to the SmartWeir system (green), to the desired height as a percentage of vessel inside
diameter (ID). The oil-intake upper limit of 64% (left) and the lower limit of 35% (right) are dictated by the mechanism’s operating envelope.

A Clean Solution portal within the vessel through which separated flow into the outlet. This eliminates the creation of
Conventional separators are unable to handle oil flows out to the oil line and through the oil a vortex effect, in which carryunder can have a det-
cleanup and surges because the weir plate is a meter—at between 35% and 64% of the vessel ID. rimental impact on flow rate measurements and
permanent installation whose height—equiva- The oil intake is attached to the SmartWeir unit also reduces the risk of blowby.4
lent to 35% of vessel inside diameter (ID)— and its height is controlled by a positioner (above). This ability to raise and lower the height of
cannot be changed. This means the space avail- For optimal performance, the oil intake must be the oil intake means the internal configuration of
able within the separator for containing water or located in the middle of the oil layer, which must the vessel can be altered at any time to accom-
oil is fixed. In contrast, SmartWeir devices can be have a minimum thickness equal to 20% of the ves- modate the dominant phase of flow and in so
adjusted vertically to place the oil intake—the sel ID. The intake point is designed to create radial doing extend retention time. For example, during

Local set point


OLT
20% to 65%
Electropneumatic Radar
Oil-control
converter valve
Oil-layer Pneumatic
thickness controller
(OLT) radar
Total
Oil line liquid level

Local set point


OLT Oil/water
40% to 65% interface
Electropneumatic Water-control
converter valve
Total liquid Pneumatic
level controller
(TLL) radar

Water line
> Level control. Reflected signals of microwave pulses (green line, right) sent down from two radar sensors at the top of the separator
vessel (right) detect total liquid level (TLL) and the oil/water interface based on contrasts in dielectric constant (right). Simple subtraction
yields the oil-layer thickness (OLT). (The two radar signals are displayed as one for convenience. Both radar signals can perform either
measurement but the transmission protocol limits them to one signal each.) The OLT radar sends a 4- to 20-mA signal to an electro-
pneumatic converter, which converts it to a 3- to 15-psi signal (top, left). This pneumatic signal is then sent to the OLT pneumatic
controller, which opens the oil valve if the OLT is outside the controller setting (top). The TLL radar initiates the same method to open the
water valve if TLL is outside of the controller setting.

52 Oilfield Review
cleanup, the dominant phase is usually water.
Flow inlet No flow Top view
Creating high water levels in the separator
means fluids remain in the separator for a longer Inlet pickoff
period before being discharged. At a later point
in the test, the dominant phase will be oil or
gas and the SmartWeir system can be adjusted
accordingly to provide longer retention times and Inlet side
thus improved separation. Outlet pickoff Magnet
The ability to flow cleanup fluids through the
separator is especially advantageous. It allows Flow outlet
operators to monitor and accurately measure
flow, providing them with information about the
volumes of drilling and completion fluids being Sine wave Outlet side
returned. It also gives engineers an early indica-
tion of reservoir productivity. No flow Flow
And because fluids can be directed through
a 9.9-MPa [1,440-psi] vessel rather than low- Inlet pickoff
pressure surge tanks, the well can be flowed at
higher rates than is possible using traditional
cleanup scenarios. This means operators will be 6t
able to see and characterize reservoir fluids more
Inlet side
quickly and complete the test in less time. At Outlet pickoff
current rig rates, savings from such efficiencies Inlet side
can be considerable.
In the CleanPhase separator, oil and water In phase
are not in separate holding compartments. That
means the oil and water valves cannot be
Outlet side Outlet side
opened by the action of floats as they are in con-
ventional separators. Instead, the valves are
> Coriolis meters. On CleanPhase separators, the Coriolis meters are configured as two parallel tubes
activated by signals initiated by a two-compo-
in the flowline. When there is no flow, current through the pickoffs (top left) generates sine waves on
nent radar system affixed to the top of the sepa- both inlet and outlet sides of the meter (bottom left and top right) that are in phase with each other.
rator. One detects total liquid level (TLL), while Fluid moving through the tubes causes them to twist in opposing directions (bottom right) and the sine
the other registers the water/oil interface for waves to go out of phase by a factor 6t, which can be converted to mass flow rate.
simple calculation of the oil-layer thickness
(OLT). When the radar controller detects a pre-
determined OLT, it signals an electropneumatic Mass flowmeters measure the mass of fluid. This twisting causes the sine waves generated
converter that opens the oil-line valve. Similarly, The measuring section consists of two vibrating by the pickoffs to shift out of phase as the inlet
when the total liquid level is sufficiently high, tubes into which the fluid stream is divided side lags behind the outlet side. This phase shift
the TLL radar performs the same steps to open evenly. Before flow begins, a drive coil causes the is the amount of time between sine waves and is
the water valve (previous page, bottom). Gas, tubes to oscillate up and down in opposition to measured in microseconds. Phase shift is directly
when present, flows continuously through the one another. At the inlet and outlet of each tube proportional to mass flow rate.
gas outlet at the top of the separator. are pickoffs—coils with magnetic inserts. A coil The natural vibration frequency of the tubes
is mounted on one side of each tube and magnets is a function of the mass of the tube and the fluid.
Mass Flow Rates on the other. As the coil moves through the mag- By knowing the natural resonant frequency of the
Once fluids are separated into three phases, the netic field of the adjacent magnet, the voltage tube, the mass of the fluid contained in the tube
individual streams pass from the separators into generated creates a sine wave. This represents can be deduced. The density is easily calculated
flowmeters. In contrast to conventional separa- the motion of one tube relative to the other: 180° by dividing that mass by the known volume of
tors, which use volume flowmeters, CleanPhase in opposition such that as one moves upward, the the tubes. The meters used in CleanPhase sepa-
separators are equipped with Coriolis mass flow- other moves downward. Therefore, the sine rators have an operating range of 16 to 2,385 m3/d
meters to measure oil, water and gas rates. The waves generated by the inlet and outlet pickoffs [100 to 15,000 bbl/d] of liquid and 14,158 to
prime metrological advantage is that Coriolis- are in phase with each other (above). 1,840,595 m3/d [0.5 to 65 MMcf/d] of gas.
meter measurements are independent of changes However, during flow, as the tube is in the
4. Carryunder occurs when free gas bubbles exit the separator
in fluid density, viscosity, pressure or tempera- upward half of its cycle, the fluid flowing into it through the oil line. Blowby is a unique, more severe case
ture. They also have no moving parts and require creates a downward force. Then, having absorbed of carryunder and occurs when the oil level in the separator
drops to the point that only gas exits the vessel through the
no manual intervention as do conventional ori- the tube’s upward momentum as it travels around oil line. This is particularly dangerous because it can lead to
fice meters. the bend in the tube, the fluid exiting the meter overpressure in the downstream tanks.

resists decreases to its vertical motion by pushing


upward on the tube. This causes the tube to twist.

Autumn 2010 53
Client Separator CleanPhase Separator
Time Production Rates Production Rates
Gas Oil Water Gas Oil Water
MMcf/d bbl/d bbl/d MMcf/d bbl/d bbl/d
15:00 1.26 751 2,634 1.27 756 2,645
15:15 1.26 749 2,628 1.27 754 2,638
15:30 1.25 747 2,621 1.27 747 2,664
15:45 1.24 746 2,621 1.28 738 2,691
16:00 1.23 746 2,618 1.27 750 2,630
16:15 1.22 746 2,620 1.25 752 2,667
16:30 1.22 747 2,621 1.24 757 2,567
16:45 1.22 740 2,597 1.24 748 2,579
17:00 1.21 733 2,571 1.22 739 2,652
17:15 1.21 732 2,568 1.22 738 2,624
17:30 1.21 731 2,565 1.21 744 2,659
17:45 1.21 731 2,565 1.22 734 2,544
18:00 1.21 731 2,565 1.21 737 2,517
18:15 1.21 726 2,548 1.21 na na
18:30 1.21 722 2,532 1.21 731 2,509

> Separator comparison. During a production well test campaign on the


Lahib field, the CleanPhase unit was called upon to verify the cumulative
flow rate of 22 production wells. Using the CleanPhase separator,
Schlumberger was able to separate and measure each phase accurately.
The combined flow rate was found to be almost identical to the commingled
production rate.

Less Waste, More Accuracy from those of an independent testing company. Sirte then ran a test placing a conventional
In many instances, the option to flow fluids Operating under the National Oil Corporation of and a CleanPhase separator in series and obtained
through the separator during cleanup is chosen Libya, Sirte tested 22 production wells in the nearly identical results (above). However, because
to save time or deduce something about the res- Lahib field at its central flow rate measuring of the time and environmental advantages of not
ervoir’s potential as it discharges nonhydrocar- facility. The total oil and condensate produc- having to bypass the separator during cleanup,
bon fluids or debris. But, depending on the tion, according to Sirte, was slightly more than the company opted to demobilize the conventional
working environment, there may be more imme- 3,180 m3/d [20,000 bbl/d]. separator in favor of the CleanPhase system for
diate returns from the ability to capture and Using a conventional two-phase separator, the future use in the field.
separate cleanup fluids from the outset. service company measured the total liquid flow
In the North Sea high-pressure, high- rate and estimated the oil rate using the water Higher Stakes
temperature Franklin field, for instance, Total cut. The service company’s tests of 22 wells indi- Well testing is an indispensable component of suc-
wanted to recover and reuse an expensive cated a total oil and condensate flow rate of cessful exploration and production programs.
cesium formate brine completion fluid. Using 2,627 m3/d [16,500 bbl/d]—at least 17% less than Accurate flow rate measurements are central to
the CleanPhase technology, Schlumberger engi- the measurements from Sirte’s facility. field-development plans. Along with other inputs—
neers were able to recover 100 bbls [16 m3] of Sirte called on Schlumberger to verify the logging, coring and other near-wellbore measure-
the fluid, which translated to operator savings of cumulative flow using CleanPhase technology. ments—well sizing, well locations, infrastructure
US$ 350,000. The three-phase well test separator was equipped design and numerous investment decisions hinge
Flowing cleanup fluids through the separator with Coriolis meters and an electromagnetic on what well tests reveal about a reservoir.
has numerous advantages and is a key element of meter to monitor water flow rate. Today, easily developed reservoirs are a rar-
CleanPhase technology. But the underlying Because of good separation, each of the three ity. That means the task of finding, producing
enabling principle—increased retention time for phases could be measured accurately. CleanPhase and transporting hydrocarbons is more complex
more effective separation and so more-accurate system measurements delivered a cumulative flow and more expensive than ever. At the same time,
measurements—can also add considerable value. rate of 3,191 m3/d [20,068 bbl/d]—a nearly exact the potential rewards in today’s frontiers are
The importance of accuracy was made clear match to the operator’s original findings. also greater. These high-stakes arenas require
in another example from North Africa. Sirte Oil that more-accurate and more-complete infor-
Company found that its flow rate measurements mation be delivered to decision makers as
for an important field differed considerably quickly as possible. —RvF

54 Oilfield Review