April 15, 2024

Importance of Solids Separation in Flowback and Production

In flowback – process fluids from the well that are recovered from the well and returned to the surface - there are many issues that can affect equipment performance and derail operations.  One of the most significant challenges is the presence of solids in the extracted fluids.  Solids separation, a critical step in Oil and Gas, ensures the efficiency, safety, and longevity of equipment and processes.

Crude oil and natural gas reservoirs often contain a mixture of hydrocarbons, water, and solid particles. These solids can range from sand and silt to corrosion biproducts and other impurities.  These materials can get as small as 10 microns, as shown in this graphic representation.  

If left untreated, these solids can severely weaken or destroy the upstream equipment, as well as pipelines and other midstream equipment required for refining/distributing the extracted hydrocarbons. This can lead to increased maintenance costs, decreased operational efficiency, and, in extreme cases, catastrophic failures.

One other primary reason to employ solid separation technology is for protection of downstream equipment.  Pumps, compressors, valves, flowline, and other equipment used in the oil & gas industry are very susceptible to damage caused by abrasive produced solids. These solids can cause erosion, leading to wear and tear, reduced operational lifespan, and increased downtime for maintenance.

Operations and production

Solids present in crude oil or natural gas can negatively impact the overall efficiency of flowback and production.  They can clog pipelines, heat exchangers, and other equipment, reducing flow rates and negatively affecting heat transfer by causing fouling, corrosion, and reducing heat transfer coefficient. This inefficiency increases energy consumption, leading to higher operational costs and reduced efficiency of the process. Additionally, it compromises the quality of the final product, by reducing the thickness of the thermal boundary layer and increasing the temperature gradient (see more information in a scientific article published in Fluids).  Solids separation is crucial for maintaining optimal processing conditions, ensuring a more efficient and cost-effective production process.

Safety and regulatory compliance

Safety is a paramount concern for oil and gas operations. The presence of solids poses significant safety risks, especially in high-pressure and high-temperature environments. Solids particles can contribute to corrosion, leading to the weakening of pipelines and other infrastructure. This corrosion, coupled with the potential for blockages and equipment failures, increases the likelihood of accidents, spills, and environmental damage. Having reliable solids separation equipment and procedures is critical for ensuring a safe operating environment for the people on site, all equipment downstream of the solids separation technologies and the environment.

In addition to the operational and safety aspects, regulatory compliance is a key driver for solids separation. Environmental regulations mandate the removal of contaminants and impurities from extracted fluids before they are transported or processed. Failure to comply with these regulations can result in severe penalties and damage to a company's reputation. (See EPA regulations.)

As the industry continues to evolve, with a growing emphasis on sustainability and responsible resource management, the importance of effective solids separation becomes even more pronounced. Investing in advanced separation technologies not only ensures the longevity of equipment and facilities but also contributes to a safer, more efficient, and environmentally responsible oil and gas sector.