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OIL AND GAS

Refining in the
reservoir
Bringing high-value petroleum products straight to the surface
rather than raw crude and gas is the next big challenge for the
oil and gas industry, says Geoff Maitland
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CAREERS
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hile efforts towards securing


sustainable energy supplies
rightly forge ahead, the fact
remains that we will continue to use
significant amounts of fossil fuels,
especially oil and gas. With most of the
easy oil and gas in decline, the industry is
focussing on unconventional hydrocarbons,
and must continue to strive to produce
hydrocarbons with the minimum use
of energy and the lowest environmental
footprint, whilst keeping lifting costs under
control.
This poses huge technology challenges,
yet we have risen to similar challenges in
the past to discover more oil and gas and
produce it affordably. Steady technology
improvements and major changes in
approach have altered the face of industry.
For example, in the 1980s, horizontal wells
were introduced and have now largely
displaced traditional vertical wells and
transformed production efficiencies and
overall recoveries.
Shale gas technology now allows us to
produce hydrocarbons that were previously
unrecoverable. And developing offshore
recovery technology, particularly deep
water and now ultra-deep water, has
similarly transformed the way oil and gas is
recovered.
Another paradigm shift is emerging as we
seek to produce hydrocarbons from ultradeep water subsea reservoirs and recover
unconventional hydrocarbons such as
heavy, viscous oils or the more solid-like tar
sands, shale oil and oil shales.
Industry is looking at how the produced
oil and gas can be processed much closer
to the reservoir, rather than pumping it over
extremely large distances before it is treated
on a platform or at an onshore facility.

subsurface hydrocarbon
processing the reservoir
refinery
Looking beyond the advances and benefits
of fluid pumping, compression and
separation on the seabed (see box: Subsea
processing) some technology providers
have a vision of a subsea factory. In this
vision, many of the surface processes are
taken to the seabed, closer to the point of
production, and the products delivered to
the surface are processed hydrocarbons.
The ultimate vision for the future would
be to move some or all of the downstream
operations into the well system or into the
reservoir itself.
As such, the concept of in situ
hydrocarbon processing involves
delivering to the surface high-value
petroleum products rather than the raw
crude oil and gas; representing a merger

subsea processing
Oil producers are increasingly taking oilfield processing down onto the ocean
floor, close to the wellheads, relocating much of the processing activity that has
previously been carried out on offshore platforms or even onshore. This is proving
to be effective in overcoming many of the challenges of producing from deep offshore
basins, enabling both accelerated production and improved overall recoveries.
Pumping liquids and compressing gas are key parts of the emerging subsea
technologies that help us overcome the challenges of falling reservoir pressures
in mature fields. This maintains the reservoir pressure and adds energy to the well
stream (artificial lift) to maximise production as reservoirs decline. For heavy, viscous
oils and low permeability reservoirs, artificial lift is often required from the start, and
reducing pumping distances improves efficiency and simplifies logistics.
As production is moved to deeper water and more remote locations, the long
gathering distances involved are a challenge, with multiphase fluids being pumped
through long tiebacks to transport the hydrocarbons to existing infrastructure.
Subsea pumping and compression has brought significant improvements but a
major problem is high water production from reservoirs, particularly as reservoirs
decline. Here, subsea fluids separation is making a big contribution. Liquid-liquid
separation of produced water from the hydrocarbons means that this is no longer
delivered to the platform or FPSO (floating production storage and offloading unit),
enabling debottlenecking of the topsides water separation facilities. This water can
be treated to remove particulates and harmful scale-forming ions such as sulphate
(by nanofiltration membranes for example) and then reinjected into the reservoir
to improve both production rates and ultimate hydrocarbon recoveries. Gas-liquid
separation enables more efficient liquid pumping and gas removal, and combined
with water removal, greatly reduces the risk of forming flowline-blocking gas hydrates
at the temperatures and pressures encountered in water depths which can now
exceed 1.5km. The risk of hydrate formation in cold subsea long-distance gathering
lines remains, but this could be minimised via electrical heating in the linings of
insulated double-pipe or coated multiphase lines which carry the produced fluids to
the surface.
The presence of remote processing equipment on the seabed has, of course, major
power demands so another key challenge is seabed transmission. The requirement
for tens of MW on the ocean floor is leading service providers to explore DC as a way
to reduce transmission losses. Of course, the best solution if a subsea-to-shore
concept is to become the norm is using locally-generated power through wave or
tidal power for instance, or fuel cells powered by locally-generated methane or even
hydrogen.
Although subsea processing is now becoming well established in some areas,
it is still in its infancy regarding its scope and the sophistication of the technology.
There is talk of unmanned robotic operations which are remotely controlled from the
surface, or from control stations halfway across the world. This would facilitate direct
and non-standard intervention (eg repair) with subsea systems operating under the
extreme conditions of low temperatures, high pressures and corrosive conditions
encountered on the ocean floor. Furthermore, working from a platform or drillship is
increasingly difficult, expensive and dangerous as water depths increase as was
tragically illustrated in 2010 by the Deepwater Horizon accident and oil spill in the
Gulf of Mexico. Eliminating the need for floating platforms would reduce the risks
associated with a manned facility as well as reducing the major capital costs involved.

of todays upstream and downstream


operations.
Instead of the downhole well network
being simply a conduit for transporting the
mobilised oil and gas to the wellhead, it
could be used as kilometres-long tubular
separation devices, purifiers and reactors.
This is an environment ripe for exploitation
of process intensification for a range of
processes from oil/water/gas/solids physical
separation, as is becoming the norm for
subsea processing, through hydrocarbon

The ultimate vision for the


future would be to move some
or all of the downstream
operations into the well
system or into the reservoir
itself... representing a merger
of todays upstream and
downstream operations.
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tce

OIL AND GAS

In situ gasification of coal


(UGC) has been used in a
limited way for over 100 years,
and can provide insights in
developing similar processes
for heavy hydrocarbons.
fractionation, to more reactive processes such
as syngas production, partial oxidation, gasto-liquids or even refining.
There is also potential to exploit the
currently-unused thermal and pressure
energy of the high temperature, high pressure
in situ hydrocarbons or to release some
of their chemical energy to fuel downhole
processes. Ideally, the reservoir refinery
would deliver to the surface only high-value
desired products such as zero- or lowercarbon fuels (such as hydrogen, methane,
DME), chemical building blocks (such as
syngas) for fuels, petrochemicals, polymers
and other materials, maybe with associated
delivery of heat and locally-generated power.
Low-value and unwanted waste materials,
such as asphaltenes, carbon dioxide and
other greenhouse gases, heavy metals and
sulphur, would be separated in situ and left in
the reservoir.

application

taking the lead from UGC


In situ gasification of coal (UGC) has been
used in a limited way for over 100 years, and
can provide insights in developing similar
processes for heavy hydrocarbons. UCG
technology is well developed, with over 60
large-scale demonstration projects carried
out over the world, including Linc Energys
Chinchilla Facility (Australia) and Eskoms
Majuba project (South Africa). Linc also
operates UCG commercially at Yerostigaz
(Uzbekistan). The process involves injecting
air and steam into unmineable coal
seams, such as those which are too deep,
offshore or too low grade. This forms a
stable, advancing combustion front which
gasifies the coal to a mixture of typically
hydrogen, carbon monoxide (together
forming syngas), methane, and CO2, which
is collected through a production wellbore.
It produces about 80% less CO2 emissions

than traditional coal mining and the


preferred technology would capture this
CO2 from the effluent gas stream, which can
then be reinjected back into neighbouring
coal seams for storage. The gas storage
capacity of naturally-fractured coal seams
is huge, often greater than depleted oil
and gas reservoirs of comparable spread.
Since CO2 adsorbs more strongly on coal
than methane, in addition to the methane
produced from the gasification the process
also leads to large volumes of the cleanest
fossil fuel. The syngas can be used for
power generation or as the feedstock for
Fischer Tropsch gas-to-liquids conversion
to liquid fuels and other chemical products.
There have been several demonstration
projects exploring in situ production and
processing of heavy hydrocarbons. The
best developed, which involves in situ
gasification and pyrolysis, is probably the
THAI (toe-to-heel air injection) process,
originally developed at the UKs University
of Bath by IChemE Fellow Malcolm
Greaves. The process adds air via injection
wells drilled into the heavy oil/bitumen
deposits, sometimes accompanied by
steam, to create a controlled combustion
front which leads to hydrous pyrolysis of
asphaltenes, production of syngas and

In situ gasification, combined


with in situ carbon capture
and storage, presents a
self-contained subsurface
alternative with a far lower
external energy requirement,
with minimal release of CO2
from the overall process.

Linc Energy Pty

This approach looks most attractive for


exploiting unconventional oil reserves, such
as heavy high viscosity crudes, tar sands and
oil shales. Current production processes, such
as steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD)
and variations using hydrocarbon vapour
injection, aim to inject large amounts of
external energy into the reservoir to convert
(and upgrade through selective fractionation)
the essentially solid-like hydrocarbons into

a flowable liquid that can then be pumped


to the surface like conventional oil and
gas. These processes are highly inefficient,
both thermally and in terms of produced
hydrocarbon yield, and extremely energy
intensive in their steam generation, with
its high associated CO2 emissions. This
means that the cost and carbon footprint
of producing and then processing these
resources is significantly higher than
for conventional oil. In situ gasification,
combined with in situ carbon capture and
storage, presents a self-contained subsurface
alternative with a far lower external energy
requirement, with minimal release of CO2
from the overall process. Here some of
the in situ heavy hydrocarbon is used as
a sacrificial fuel to produce a controlled
combustion front which creates the thermal
conditions for gasification, pyrolysis or
partial oxidation conversion to higher value
products for power, fuels or chemicals.

UCG technology is well developed, with over 60 large-scale demonstration projects carried out over the world, including (left to right): Linc
Energys Chinchilla Facility (Australia) and commercial plant in Uzbekistan.
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Shell

Petrobank Energy and Resources

CAREERS
OIL AND GAS tce

Petrobank has used the THAI process in the Kerrobert


demonstration project in Saskatchewan (pictured, left); Shell
produces bitumen from its in situ heavy oil leases (pictured above)
located in the Peace River oil sands

subsequent hydrogenation of thermallycracked oil. The process substantially


upgrades the produced oil and achieves
a high oil recovery, typically over 80%
OOIP (original oil in place) in pilot tests.
An additional catalytic upgrading process,
CAPRI (controlled atmospheric pressure
resin infusion), incorporates an annular
layer of catalyst, placed on the outside of
the perforated horizontal producer well.
This further upgrades the produced oil as it
enters the producer wells, with higher levels
of saturates and lower heavy hydrocarbons.
Petrobank has used the THAI process
in the Kerrobert demonstration project in
Saskatchewan, where there are over
20bn bbl of heavy oil awaiting exploitation.
It seems that upgrades to significantly
lighter oil have been achieved, but it is
not clear yet whether sufficiently high
production levels can be achieved. The
technology is particularly attractive in heavy
oil areas where water and natural gas are
not sufficiently abundant to support largescale, cost-effective SAGD operations; South
America and China are potential areas for
future exploitation.
Shell has adopted an alternative
approach for subsurface processing, using
in situ electrical heating to provide the
energy. It has shown that the approach
works technically in a number of fieldscale demonstration projects. The in situ
upgrading process has been tested on
oil sand deposits at Peace River, Canada,

The technology is particularly


attractive in heavy oil areas
where water and natural gas
are not sufficiently abundant
to support large-scale, costeffective SAGD operations;
South America and China
are potential areas for future
exploitation.

where 29 wells were drilled for the field test


18 containing heaters, eight observation
wells and three producing wells yielding
over 100,000 bbl of light oil. The average
recovery was 50% compared with 20%
from traditional methods. An alternative
in situ conversion process has been used
at Green River in Colorado to heat solid oil
shales containing the partially-matured
hydrocarbon, kerogen. Heating the shale at
temperatures up to 400C accelerates the
conversion of kerogen to light oil and gas;
between 20032005, 1,700 bbl of high quality
light oil and associated gas were recovered
from oil shale here. So these processes
appear technically feasible at moderate
scales but because they have major external
power requirements, it remains to be seen
whether they can compete with alternative
approaches on both cost and overall carbon
footprint.

the role of chemical


engineers
Both the approaches described here, subsea
and subsurface hydrocarbon processing,
present major challenges and opportunities
for chemical engineers. They involve
process transformation and intensification,
require new and improved gas-liquidsolid separation processes and present
the challenge of carrying out physical
and chemical conversion processes in
new, remote and confined environments
in a cost-effective and environmentally
acceptable manner. Subsea processing is
with us now and on a fast growth curve,
whereas the reservoir refinery is still decades
away from becoming a reality. However,
we still have the time and it is a goal worth
aiming for which could bring many benefits.
As we move to using more remote and
difficult-to-produce fossil fuels, as we must
to manage the energy transition over the
next five or more decades, this must be
achieved through low carbon emission
processes while keeping costs under control.
Leaving much of the carbon in the reservoir
and producing hydrocarbons in as low a
carbon content form as possible would seem

As we move to using more


remote and difficult-toproduce fossil fuels, as we
must to manage the energy
transition over the next five
or more decades, this must be
achieved through low carbon
emission processes while
keeping costs under control.
to be worth pursuing, as a medium- to
long-term cleaner fossil fuels alternative to
carbon capture and storage, CCS.
Currently we use a lot of energy to
produce non-selectively to surface all the
carbon in a reservoir as hydrocarbons, use
a shed load more to convert it to useful
fuels and products, release the carbon as
CO2 and then must use even more energy
to capture the 10 Gt pa needed to keep
within the 2050 carbon mitigation targets.
There must be a better way, and chemical
engineers can unlock many of the key
solutions. tce
Geoff Maitland (g.maitland@imperial.
ac.uk) is professor of energy engineering
at Imperial College London, and IChemE
president

Chemical Engineering Matters


The topics discussed in this article refer to the
following lines on the vistas of IChemEs technical
strategy document Chemical Engineering Matters:

Energy Lines 1, 25, 15, 17,


Water Lines 1, 23
Health and wellbeing
Lines 2, 7, 10, 19, 23

Visit www.icheme.org/vistas2 to discover where


this article and your own activities fit into the myriad
of grand challenges facing chemical engineers

may 2015 www.tcetoday.com

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