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Oil and gas separators

An oil/gas separator is a pressure vessel used for separating a well stream into gaseous and liquid
components. They are installed either in an onshore processing station or on an offshore platform. Based
on the vessel configurations, the oil/gas separators can be divided into horizontal, vertical, or spherical
separators. In teams of fluids to be separated, the oil/gas separators can be grouped into gas/liquid twophase separator or oil/gas/water three-phase separator. Based on separation function, the oil/gas
separators can also classified into primary phase separator, test separator, high-pressure separator, lowpressure separator, deliquilizer, degasser, etc. To meet process requirements, the oil/gas separators are
normally designed in stages, in which the first stage separator is used for priliminary phase separation,
while the second and third stage separator are applied for further treatment of each individual phase (gas,
oil and water). Depending on a specific application, oil/gas separators are also called deliquilizer or
degasser. The deliquilizers are used to remove dispersed droplets from a bulk gas stream; while the
degassers are designed to remove contaimined gas bubbles from the bulk liquid stream.

1 Other separator names

2 Separator components

3 Function of a separator

4 Requirements of separators

4.1 Depressurization

4.2 Metering

4.3 Protection of pumps and compressors

4.3.1 Booster compressor unit

4.3.2 Dehydration unit

5 Separator orientation

6 Design Consideration

6.1 Inlet zone

6.2 Flow distribution Zone

6.3 Gravity/coalescing zone

6.4 Outlet zone

7 Separator performance

8 Vessel Internals

9 Performance impediments

9.1 Foaming

9.2 Paraffin

9.3 Solids and salt

9.4 Corrosion

9.5 Sloshing

9.6 Level controls

10 Nomenclature

11 References

12 Noteworthy papers in OnePetro

13 Online multimedia

14 External links

15 See also

16 Category

Other separator names

Conventional oil/gas separator names:

Oil/gas separator

Gas/liquid separator





Separator components
An oil/gas separator generally consists of following components

Inlet device located in pre-separation zone/section for priliminary phase separation;

Baffles downstream the inlet component to improve flow distribution;

Separation enhancement device located in the primary separation (gravity settling) section for
major phase separation;

Mist extraction device located in gas space to further reduce liquid content in the bulk gas stream;

Various weirs to control the liquid level or interface level;

Vortex breaker to prevent gas carryunder at outlet of liquid phase;

Liquid level/interface detection and control, etc.;

Gas, oil, water outlet;

Pressure relief devices

In most oil/gas processing systems, the oil/gas separator is the first vessel the well stream flows through
after it leaves the producing well. However, other equipment such as heaters may be installed upstream of
the separator.

Function of a separator
The primary functions of an oil/gas separator, along with separation methods, are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1

Requirements of separators
Separators are required to provide oil/gas streams that meet saleable pipeline specification as well as

Oil must have less than 1% (by volume) water and less than 5 lbm water/MMscf gas.
Water stream must have less than 20 ppm oil for overboard discharge in the Gulf of Mexico

Stage recovery of liquid hydrocarbons - Staged separation (depressurization) - to maximize the liquid
hydrocarbon volumes Fig. 1 shows a typical deepwater GOM process train. There are four stages of
1. high pressure (HP)
2. intermediate pressure (IP)
3. free water knockout (FWKO)
4. the degasser/bulk oil treater (BOT) combination

Fig. 1Typical GOM production separation train consisting of HP, IP, FWKO, degasser, and BOT
(courtesy of CDS Separation Technologies Inc.).

Bulk water is removed in the third stage, FWKO, and final dewatering is accomplished in the BOT. In the
North Sea and other locations, water may be removed in the HP and/or IP vessels. The BOT is typically an
electrostatic treater. Sometimes, the BOT will include a degassing section, eliminating the need for a
separate degasser vessel. Typical deepwater GOM platform pressures for degasser stages are:

1,500 psig for HP

700 psig for IP

250 psig for IP

50 psig for FWKO

Protection of pumps and compressors
Booster compressor unit
Fig. 2 shows the associated booster compressor unit

Fig. 2Typical three-stage compressor train (courtesy of CDS Separation Technologies Inc.).

Dehydration unit

Fig. 3 the glycol dehydration unit. Both systems make use of separators as a major component in their

Fig. 3Typical Glycol dehydration system courtesy of CDS Separation Technologies Inc.).

Separator orientation
Table 2 compares the advantages and disadvantages of vertical and horizontal separators. This table
should be used as a guideline in selection.

Table 2

Design Consideration
The oil/gas separators are typically sized by the settling theory or retention time for the liquid phase. To
handle the liquid surges or production fluctuation frequenctly encountered during oil/gas production, it is a
common practice to size the oil/gas separators with a sufficient margin. The separator is generally divided
into the following functional zones,

Inlet zone

Flow distribution zone

Gravity separation/coalescing zone

Outlet zone

Each zone has to be carefully designed to achieve the designated overall separation performance. More
details show on the separator sizing page.

Inlet zone

Appropriate inlet device is needed to obtain an initial bulk separation of liquid/gas. In most cases, gas will
have already come out of solution in the pipeline, leading to the separator (because of pressure drop
across an upstream choke or a control valve). Hence, the majority of the gas is separated from the liquid in
the inlet zone. Because of foaming issues and the need for higher capacities, cyclonic inlets are now
becoming increasingly popular. For applications with inlet momentum saying less than 9 kPa, a vane inlet
can be used.
Typical inlets include:

Flat impact plates

Dished-head plates

Half-open pipes

Vane-type inlet

Cyclone-cluster inlet

These inlets, although inexpensive, may have the shortcoming of negatively affecting separation
performance. However, for higher-momentum fluids, these inlets can cause problems. The flat or dishedhead plates can result in small drops and foam. The open-pipe designs can lead to fluid short-circuiting or
channeling. Although inlet momentum is a good starting guideline for selection, the process conditions, as
well as the demister choice, should also be considered. For example, if the liquid loading is low enough that
a demister can handle all the liquid, then inlet devices can be applied beyond their typical momentum

Flow distribution Zone

Regardless of the size of the vessel, short-circuiting can result in poor separation efficiency. Integral to any
inlet device is a flow straightener such as a single perforated baffle plate. A full-diameter plate allows the
gas/liquid to flow more uniformly after leaving the vane-type inlet, inlet cyclones, or even the impact plates.
The plate also acts as an impingement demister and foam breaker as well. Typical net-free area (NFA)
ranges in the 10 to 50% range. As the NFA lowers, the shear of the fluids gets higher, so the NFA should be
matched to the particular application. One concern of these plates is solids buildup on the upstream side.
Generally, the velocities are high enough in the inlet zone to carry the solids through the perforations. In
any case, a flush nozzle should be installed in the inlet zone. Other designs include flow straightening
vanes. However, the open area is generally too high to be effective.

Gravity/coalescing zone
To assist in separation (and foam breaking), mesh pad, vane pack, and/or plate/matrix packs are
sometimes introduced in the gas/liquid separator. These internals provide more impingement or shearing
surfaces to enhance coalescing effect of the dispersed phase. For the gas phase, matrix/plate packs and
vanes have been used to aid in liquid drop coalescence or foam breaking. The theory behind installing the
high surface internals such as plate packs for foam breaking is that the bubbles will stretch and break as
they are dragged along the surfaces. However, if most of the gas flows through the top portion of the pack,
the foamy layer will not be sufficiently sheared, and the bubbles will meander through to the other end.

Outlet zone
Mist capture can occur by three mechanisms; it should be kept in mind that there are no sharply defined
limits between mechanisms. As the momentum of a droplet varies directly with liquid density and the cube
of the diameter, heavier or larger particles tend to resist following the streamline of a flowing gas and will
strike objects placed in their line of travel. This is inertial impaction, the mechanism responsible for
removing most particles of diameter > 10 m. Smaller particles that follow the streamlines may collide with
the solid objects, if their distance of approach is less than their radius. This is direct impaction. It is often
the governing mechanism for droplets in the 1- to 10-m range. With submicron mists, Brownian capture
becomes the dominant collection mechanism. This depends on Brownian motionthe continuous random

motion of droplets in elastic collision with gas molecules. As the particles become smaller and the velocity
gets lower, the Brownian capture becomes more efficient. Almost all mist elimination equipment falls into
four categories:





Separator performance
Separation performance can be evaluaed by liquid carrying over and gsa carrying down rates, which are
affected by many factors, such as:

Flow rates

Fluid properties

Vessel configuration


Control system


The gas capacity of most gas/liquid separation vessel is sized on the basis of removing a certain size of
liquid droplets. The main unknown is the incoming drop-size distribution. Without this, the effluent quality
cannot realistically be estimated. For example, a specification that the gas outlet should have less than 0.1
gal/MMscf liquid is somewhat difficult to guarantee because of the unknown drop-size distribution. Pressure
drops across upstream piping components and equipment can create very small drops (1 to 10 m) while
coalescence in piping and inlet devices can create larger drops. A removal drop size of 10 m for scrubbers
is more realistic to specify. The same discussion applies to water-in-oil and oil-in-water specifications. To
the authors knowledge, a correlation is not available to predict water-in-oil or oil-in-water concentrations.
For example, prediction of whether a separator can produce an oil stream with less than 20%v water is
generally based on experience or analogous separators.
The liquid capacity of most separators is sized to provide enough retention time to allow gas bubbles to
form and separate out. More retention time is needed for separators that are designed to separate oil from
water, as well as gas from liquid (three-phase compared to two-phase separators).

Vessel Internals
It is evidenced that tvessel internals could significantly affect the operating performance of an oil/gas
separator through the following ways:

Flow distribution

Drop/bubble shearing and coalescence

Foam creation


Level control

Performance impediments
When pressure is reduced on certain types of crude oil, tiny bubbles of gas are encased in a thin film of oil
when the gas comes out of solution. This may result in foam, or froth, being dispersed in the oil and creates
what is known as foaming oil. In other types of crude oil, the viscosity and surface tension of the oil may
mechanically lock gas in the oil and can cause an effect similar to foam. Oil foam is not stable or longlasting unless a foaming agent is present in the oil.
Whether crude oil is foamy is not well known. The presence of a surface active agent and process
conditions play a part. The literature indicates organic acids as being a foaming agent. High-gravity oils and
condensates typically do not result in foaming situations, as described by Callaghan et al. [1]
Foaming greatly reduces the capacity of oil/gas separators because a much longer retention time is
required to adequately separate a given quantity of foaming crude oil. Foaming crude oil cannot be
measured accurately with positive-displacement meters or with conventional volumetric metering vessels.
These problems, combined with the potential loss of oil/gas because of improper separation, emphasize
the need for special equipment and procedures in handling foaming crude oil.
The main factors that assist in breaking foaming oil are:


Agitation (baffling)



Centrifugal force

These factors or methods of reducing or breaking foaming oil are also used to remove entrained gas
from oil. Many different designs of separators for handling foaming crude oil have evolved. They are
available from various manufacturerssome as standard foam handling units and some designed
especially for a specific application.
Silicone- and fluorosilicone-based chemical defoamers are typically used in conjunction with cyclonic inlets
to break foam. The chemical defoamer concentration is generally in the range of 5 to 10 ppm, but for many
GOM crudes, 50 to 100 ppm is common.
Fig. 4 is a gamma ray scan of a 48-in.-diameter horizontal gas separator showing the problems resulting
from foam. The horizontal axis is signal strength, and the vertical axis is height within the separator. High
signal strength indicates less mass or more gas. Less signal strength indicates more mass or liquid. As the
chemical rate is decreased, the interface between gas/liquid becomes less defined. The bottom of the
vessel becomes gassy (more signal), while the upper portion becomes foamy (less signal). Liquid carryover
occurs as the foam is swept through the demister. Gas carry-under occurs as the bubbles cannot be

Fig. 4Example of gamma scan results (courtesy of CDS Separation Technologies Inc.).

Fig. 5 shows a horizontal separator used to process foamy crudes. The fluids flow through inlet cyclones,
where the centrifugal action helps break the large bubbles. A perforated plate downstream of the inlet
cyclones aids in promoting uniform flow as well as demisting and defoaming. Demisting cyclones in the gas
outlet remove large amounts of the liquid that results from a foamy oil layer. The foamy oil pad results from
the small bubbles that cannot be removed in the inlet cyclones.

Fig. 5Two-phase separator designed for foam breaking (courtesy of CDS Separation Technologies

In between the perforated plate and the demister, high-surface internals such as plate or matrix packs are
sometimes installed to break the large bubbles. As previously discussed, the theory behind the highsurface internals is that the bubbles will stretch and break as they are dragged along the surfaces.
However, if most of the gas flows through the top portion of the pack, the foamy layer will not be sufficiently
sheared, and the bubbles will meander through to the other end.

Paraffin deposition in oil/gas separators reduces their efficiency and may render them inoperable by
partially filling the vessel and/or blocking the mist extractor and fluid passages. Paraffin can be effectively
removed from separators by use of steam or solvents. However, the best solution is to prevent initial
deposition in the vessel by heat or chemical treatment of the fluid upstream of the separator. Another
deterrent, successful in most instances, involves the coating of all internal surfaces of the separator with a
plastic for which paraffin has little or no affinity. The weight of the paraffin causes it to slough off of the
coated surface before it builds up to a harmful thickness.
In general, paraffinic oils are not a problem when the operating temperature is above the cloud point
(temperature at which paraffin crystals begin to form). The problems arise, however, during a shutdown,
when the oil has a chance to cool. paraffin comes out of solution and plates surfaces. When production is
restored, the incoming fluid may not be able to flow to the plated areas to dissolve the paraffin. In addition,
temperatures higher than the cloud point are required to dissolve the paraffin.

Solids and salt

If sand and other solids are continuously produced in appreciable quantities with well fluids, they should be
removed before the fluids enter the pipelines. Salt may be removed by mixing water with the oil, and after
the salt is dissolved, the water can be separated from the oil and drained from the system.
Vertical vessels are well suited for solids removal because of the small collection area. The vessel bottom
can also be cone-shaped, with water jets to assist in the solids removal. In horizontal vessels, sand jets
and suction nozzles are placed along the bottom of the vessel, typically every 5 to 8 ft. Inverted troughs
may be placed on top of the suction nozzles as well to keep the nozzles from plugging. A sand-jet system is
shown in Fig. 6. This type of system is sometimes difficult to use while the vessel is in operation because of
the effect of the jetting and suction on separation and level control. For vessels that must be designed to
enable sand jetting while in service, see the discussion on Emulsion Treating.

Fig. 6Sand-jet system (courtesy of CDS Separation Technologies Inc.).

Produced well fluids can be very corrosive and cause early failure of equipment. The two most corrosive
elements are hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide. These two gases may be present in the well fluids in
quantities from a trace up to 40 to 50% of the gas by volume. A discussion of corrosion in pressure vessels
is included in the page of water treating.

Because of the action of waves or ocean current on a floating structure, liquid contents in an oil/gas
separator would be excited, which results in internal fluid sloshing motions. It is particularly a problem in
long horizontal separators. Sloshing degrades the separation efficiency through additional mixing, resulting
in liquid carry-over in the gas line, gas carry-under in the liquid line, and loss of level control. In three-phase
separators, oil/water and gas/liquid separation efficiency is degraded. It is therefore necessary to design
internal baffle systems to limit sloshing. Emphasis is generally placed on internals for wave dampening in
gas-capped separators because of the larger fluid motions.
The liquid level changes from end to end must be considered in the design of the inlet and outlet devices.
Too low a liquid level can result in gas blow-by of inlet cyclones, whereas too high a liquid level can cause
siphoning of liquid through the mist extractor.
Table 3 gives some estimates of the natural period of the liquid for vessels undergoing lengthwise motions
(sway). The periods are in the order of 10s, which is similar to the period found for floating platforms such
as tension leg platforms (TLP) and floating production, storage and offloading (FPSO) vessels under a 10year storm condition.

Table 3

The alignment of the separators with the structure motion should be considered when designing the layout.
For example, on TLP, the vessels are recommended to be aligned with their long dimension, perpendicular
to the TLP prevailing motion. On ships, the magnitude and period of the pitch and roll should be considered
when aligning the vessels. Normally, it is recommended to align the separators with their long dimension
along the length of the ship.
The available literature, as described by Roberts et al.[2], highlights two main features of wave-damping

Elimination of the gas/liquid interface

Shifting of the natural sloshing frequency of the separator away from the platform frequency

On some ships, fuel tanks fill with sea water, as the fuel is spent, to prevent problems associated with
Shifting the natural frequency is usually accomplished by segmenting the vessel with transverse baffles.
The baffles are perforated, can be placed throughout the liquid phase, or can be placed in the region of the
oil/water interface. However the following are major concerns:

Vessel access

Solids collection

Mixing are major concerns

Horizontal perimeter baffles can be used, but they have disadvantages as well. Other baffle shapes include
angled wings along the length of the vessel to mitigate waves because of roll as well as vertical perforated
baffles down the length of the vessel. Table 4 highlights the differences between horizontal and vertical

Table 4

Level controls
Stable control of the oil/water and gas/oil interfaces is important for good separation. The typical two-phase
separator level settings are shown in Table 5. For three-phase operation, level settings are placed on both
the oil/water interface and oil/gas interface levels.

Table 5

Typically, the spacing between the different levels is at least 4 to 6 in. or a minimum of 10 to 20 seconds of
retention time. The location of the lowest levels must also consider sand/solids settling. These levels are
typically 6 to 12 in. from the vessel bottom. Minimum water/oil pad thicknesses are approximately 12 in.
Note that these minimum settings may dominate the vessel sizing as opposed to the specified retention
In a two- or three-phase horizontal separator with very little liquid/water, a boot or double-barrel separator
configuration is used. All the interface controls are then located within the boot or lower barrel. Examples of
these types of separators can be seen at Separator types.
To coerce the liquid to exit through the tube-wall gap, a slipstream of gas is also withdrawn. The slipstream
is induced to exit through the gap by maintaining a lower pressure in the outer annular space than that
which is inside the tubes. This is done by constructing ducts between the annular space and the hollow
core pieces of all the spin generators. The tails of these hollow cores are, in turn, open to the low pressure
of the newly generated gas vortices. A gas slipstream of about 5% is recycled out of the tubes to pull liquid
out, then back to the spin generator and out its tail end, where it joins the main gas stream.


continuous phase density, kg/m3;

continuous phase dynamic viscosity, kg/(ms) or Ns/m2;


continuous phase velocity, m/s;


hydraulic diameter.


drop/rise velocity, m/s;


horizontal water velocity, m/s;

plate-pack length, m;


plate-pack perpendicular gap spacing, m.

water density, kg/m3;

oil density, kg/m3;

water dynamic viscosity, kg/(ms) or Ns/m2;

gravitational acceleration, 9.81 m/s2;


drop diameter, m.


design velocity, m/s;

gas-phase density, kg/m3;

liquid-phase density, kg/m3;

mesh capacity factor, m/s.

1. Jump up Callaghan, I.C., McKechnie, A.L., Ray, J.E. et al. 1985. Identification of Crude Oil
Components Responsible for Foaming. SPE J. 25 (2): 171175. SPE-12342PA. http://dx.doi.org/10.2118/12342-PA.
2. Jump up Roberts, J.R., Basurto, E.R., and Chen, P.Y. 1966. Slosh Design Handbook I, NASACR-406, Contract No. NAS 8-11111. Huntsville, Alabama: Northrop Space Laboratories.

Noteworthy papers in OnePetro

Carios, E., Vega, L., Pardo, R., and Ibarra, J. 2013. Experimental Study of a Poor Boy Downhole Gas
Separator Under Continuous Gas-Liquid Flow. Presented at the SPE Artificial Lift Conference-Americas,
Cartagena, Columbia, 21-22 May 2013. SPE-165033-MS. http://dx.doi.org/10.2118/165033-MS.

Online multimedia

Georgie, Wally J. 2013. Foaming in Separators: Handling and

Operation. http://eo2.commpartners.com/users/spe/session.php?id=10949
Heijckers, Cris. 2012. Flow Conditioning Impact on
Separations. http://eo2.commpartners.com/users/spe/session.php?id=9426
Matar, Omar K. 2013. Defoaming Additives in Horizontal Multiphase FlowImpact on Flow Regime and
Separations. http://eo2.commpartners.com/users/spe/session.php?id=11417

External links