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Baker Hughes fluids separation technologies celebrates 100 years

Oilfield Technology,

It has been 100 years since William S. Barnickel patented the first chemical oil and water separator on the 14th of April 1914. Today, Baker Hughes continues to invest in fluids separation technologies for oil and gas applications all around the world.

Water wells have been dug or drilled for thousands of years all over the globe; so naturally when oil wells are drilled, water can break through into the oil reservoir. This underground water mixing with crude oil through various production methods created serious emulsion problems for early oil producers, pipeline operators, and refiners until William S. Barnickel patented the first chemical oil and water separator on the 14th of April 1914. He branded it the Tret-O-Lite demulsifier.

Emulsified oil, considered worthless and unsaleable, was often so thick that it could be shoveled. This emulsified/waste oil was so problematic to oil producers that large quantities were burned, poured into earthen holding pits to settle out or dumped into rivers. All these options added to industrial air, ground and water pollution throughout the US and the world. Pipeline operators and refiners also refused to accept emulsified oil because of its corrosive impact on assets. Although emulsified oil could be treated by boiling or applying high heat, there was a risk of explosive steam pressures when oil with high water content was heated during processing. The patented Tret-O-Lite demulsifier technology was an industry milestone because it was the first officially recognised and patented chemical treatment to separate water from crude oil. This technology allowed oil producers to enhance their operations by releasing oil droplets trapped in water and vice-versa, before discharging the oil-free or much cleaner water into the environment. As a result, the risk of water, ground and air pollution, and equipment and pipeline corrosion was reduced – leading to increased profits. This revolutionary Tret-O-Lite process also opened up a new industry to serve the oilfield – specialty chemicals.

Today, the new generations of the Baker Hughes TRETOLITE™ fluids separation technologies continue to reliably treat any crude composition, from conventional to shale to deepwater, to heavy oil and oilsands production and future frontiers.

William S. Barnickel patented the first chemical oil and water separator on the 14th of April 1914.

Field-testing crude for optimum results

Baker Hughes field engineers select the optimum demulsifier by testing live crude oil in the field. This field testing is generally performed using the ‘bottle test’ method. By using this method, numerous base chemical products can be tested on fresh emulsions and at the exact operating conditions to formulate a product specific to a particular field and emulsion. As field and environmental (seasonal) conditions change over time, it’s essential to optimise demulsifier performance on a regular basis. Baker Hughes field personnel apply TRETOLITE fluids separation technologies to address operational concerns with inefficient mixing, lower retention times due to over capacity vessels, difficult environmental conditions, as well as countless other difficulties encountered during production.

Extracting the different crudes from the earth presents a variety of production challenges for operators. These include, but are not limited to, high metal content and naphthenic acid salts in crude oil; high-solids content in heavy oil; acid flowback emulsions and high-melting point paraffin emulsions in shale oil; and higher than capacity fluid volumes in vessels, overboard water quality issues in offshore production, etc. Increasingly stringent regulatory requirements add to these challenges.

Baker Hughes employs specially trained scientists and engineers with TRETOLITE production selection knowledge and application expertise. By efficiently breaking oil and water emulsions, operators are able to meet their production targets and any export crude specifications. The fluids separation technologies also help correct poor water quality, decrease oiling of filter media, and mitigate deteriorating injection well conditions. Two proprietary environmental services laboratories, located in St. Louis, Missouri, and Tanager, Norway, also serve customers in both hemispheres. Strategically-placed manufacturing operations, blending plants, and warehouses allow for efficient regional supply and delivery, which also helps operators meet their production targets.

Case study

A heavy oil producer in Alberta, Canada, treating trucked-in production fluids was generating approximately 180 bopd (20 m3/d) of slop oil at a particular battery. This had significant cost impacts such as:

  • High operating costs and problems while transporting slop oil from the facility.
  • Production bottleneck because slop oil volume was backing up into the coalescing tanks and the first sales tank.
  • An additional expenditure required to build an onsite facility to treat the slop oil.

Other facilities in the area were producing from the same formation, but not generating slop oil. Baker Hughes was treating those facilities, so they were asked to develop a treatment programme to reduce slop oil generation at this location. Local Baker Hughes technical experts using the TOTAL SYSTEMS APPROACH™ process worked with plant personnel to conduct a comprehensive audit of the oil-water separation facility, which identified all the possible factors contributing to the slop oil generation. The team also performed bottle testing to evaluate candidate products to treat this system. After the audit, Baker Hughes recommended the TRETOLITE™ DMO4348 demulsifier, a specially-formulated product, to reduce the slop oil generation. Applied to the production fluids upstream of the free water knock out (FWKO), the new demulsifier quickly decreased the daily slop oil generation by 86%, back to the amount of original solids coming into the plant for mass balance.

Since those earliest advancements, Baker Hughes has never stopped searching for solutions to challenges in the hydrocarbon production and processing industries. Today, TRETOLITE fluids separation technologies are comprehensive solutions for oil producers – providing rapid water drop, increasing system efficiency, creating a distinct oil/water interface, significantly reducing or eliminating residual emulsion, reducing fouling and plugging, reducing oil losses, clearing effluent water for disposal, reuse, or re-injection, lowering salt content in crude, and helping them comply with environmental regulations.

Edited for web by Cecilia Rehn

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