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Foaming in EP Industry- A Global Perspective

Arun Bhattacharya TW Services

What is Foaming?

A foam is a substance that is formed by trapping many gaseous bubbles in a liquid (or solid). Foams are extremely complex systems consisting of poly-disperse gas bubbles separated by draining films. Several conditions are needed to produce foam: there must be mechanical work, presence of surface active components (which reduces surface tension) and foam formation rate faster than break-down rate (dictated by various forces e.g. gravitational, osmotic and Laplace pressures).

Foaming problems have been reported in both production and refining applications. However this presentation focuses on production applications (including natural gas processing applications) only.
According to a survey conducted among Gas Processing plants in Texas, New Mexico and Alberta, it was reported that none operates without the usage of anti-foam.

Another US survey revealed that lower 25% of the surveyed plants face the foaming problem almost daily while median amine plants face an average of seven episodes per year. This indicates the magnitude of the problem.
Business impact of foaming is huge-often running to millions of dollars in reduced production revenues, increased equipment down-time & maintenance costs etc.

Foaming in Crude Oil Systems

Commonly Foaming problems have been observed in following EP areas: - Production Separators - Produced Water Treatment (Gas Floatation units) - Gas Dehydration (Glycols) - Gas Sweetening (Amines) The root cause of foaming is different for each system. In crude oil systems, foaming tendency has been found to be in direct proportion to asphaltenes concentration. Naturally occurring surfactants specially short chain carboxylic acids and phenols of MW<400 act as foam stabilizers. Presence of minute particles or CI chemicals injected in wells can also create foam stabilizing effect. In general heavy crudes are more susceptible to foaming (higher asphaltene content).

Foaming problems are aggravated by changes in P/T conditions and flow through piping & valves.

Foaming in Crude Systems- BP Case Study

BPs Sullom Voe Terminal: Several foaming observed in HP & LP separators. Conventional antifoams did not work at higher GOR. Under severe conditions, separator internals (dixon plates) & demister were not effective. A foam density profile using gamma ray scans in the separator showed the following across the separator diameter. Density profile did not change along the separator length.
No foam Profile Profile w/ Foam

Density Vapor Density Liquid Density

Based on above, it was estimated that crude contents of foam was between 28%-66% and up to 50% of crude fed could be carried over in foam. It was estimated only 40% of design capacity could be achieved without any foam control facilities. A novel foam inhibitor was finally developed and was effective in foam control. Extensive facility modifications were carried out to install permanent anti-foam injection facility along with gamma ray scanning facility for the separators.

Foaming in Crude Systems- Kuwait Case Study

Facility for treating onshore dry crude oil consisted of separators and tanks. Mechanical foam breakers (inlet degassing element and de-foamer plates) were installed in the separators. However these proved to be ineffective as excessive foaming was observed in day-to-day operations. Silicone based anti-foams were tested for foam control which resulted in marked difference in separator throughput and liquid carry-over in the gas stream almost stopped. The following results were reported.

Foaming in Crude Systems- Some Process Considerations

Key to Foam control is to prevent it forming in the first place. Hence the focus should be to identify and remove the foam stabilizing element, if possible. Sometimes installing suitable filter media upstream of separators can solve the problem. However many a time this is not possible. Surface whips, thermal shocks and ultrasonic techniques have also been proposed for foam control. However mechanical devices are usually not considered adequate and are often accompanied by anti-foam injection facilities for foamy crudes.

Difference between anti-foams (chemicals used to inhibit foam formation- before it is formed) and de-foamers (chemicals used to break foams- after it is formed) should be appreciated.
Key process design parameter in equipment sizing for foamy crudes is the retention time available/ required to break the foams. Essentially it comes down to the cost benefit between larger equipment costs (offering higher retention time) vis--vis higher facility operating costs (with anti-foams). While designing upstream separation facilities for green field projects or supplemental field development thro brown-field projects, careful considerations for foaming characteristics of crude systems should be given. Non-identification of this parameter carries the risk of potentially significant business impact.

Foaming in PW Treatment Systems (Gas Floatation)

Foaming in PW treatment systems can cause excessive liquid carry-over and loss of separation efficiency. In produced water treatment, foaming can either be a problem or a benefit, depending on the amount of foam. For example, a certain amount of foam is beneficial in gas flotation cells, however excessive foam makes subsequent handling of the recovered waste stream more difficult. Two types of compounds are commonly used for controlling foam, silicones and polyglycol esters. These compounds work by disrupting the gas/liquid interface thus breaking down the foam. These compounds have low solubility in both oil and water. Typical treatment concentrations are 5 -25ppm. In PW treatment applications, these compounds stay with the recovered oil froth, which is returned to the produced oil stream. Therefore only small amounts of the de-foamers are discharged in the produced water.

Foaming in Glycol Dehydration System

High Glycol loss from gas dehydration circuit is a common operating problem in global EP industry. Glycol loss is broadly categorised under the following heads:

Vaporisation Losses both from Contactor and Regenerator. Equilibrium glycol loss from Contactors is usually around 5% of total loss and is primarily due to high gas temperature. Vaporisation loss from the still is mainly due to high still temperature and high stripping gas rate. Carryover losses both from Contactor and Still Column: Primarily due to foaming, high gas velocity and inadequate mist-mat capacity (at high foaming rates, even a well designed mistmat can not stop excessive liquid carry-over). Mechanical Losses- usually negligible for well maintained plants.

Foaming in Glycol system usually results from the following main causes:

Condensate Carry-over from upstream units as a result of poor separation efficiency/ inadequate inlet separation devices/ inadequate skimming facility to prevent condensate carryover to regen system. TEG degradation products (due to higher reboiler temp- typically above 204C) , if not filtered properly, will tend to accumulate in the system and cause foaming.

Benchmarking Glycol Dehydration Performance

As it is difficult to predict and benchmark extent of foaming in glycol systems, industry focus remained on total glycol loss data. However following may be noted in this regard:

As stated earlier, some glycol losses are unavoidable which are governed by thermodynamic equilibrium and glycol solubility in hydrocarbon gases (dependent on operating P,T, Composition). Higher pressure and lower temperature combinations tend to reduce glycol losses while lower pressure and higher temperatures tend to increase these losses. It has been suggested that glycol losses start to become appreciable at gas densities >100 kg/m3 and gas temperature>49C. Feed gases with high CO2 content will tend to offer higher glycol losses (particularly at >62 bar, as CO2 becomes dense phase). The following limits are not applicable for such scenario (mostly applicable for CO2 flood/EOR conditions).

Following are the various Industry guides/ benchmarks for total glycol loss data (complied from various sources).

Referenced Benchmark Performance

Sl. No Quoted Glycol Loss

DEP (Dec 1994). The quoted losses are typical for properly designed and maintained dehydration unit. Suggested that the typical entrainment loss with bubble cap trays is of the order of 10 lit/MMSm3 (included in the above figure). GPSA. The lower figure for HP-LT mode and the higher figure for LP-HT mode. Worley design guide BP Guideline for Glycol dehydration Unit for North Sea (UK) operations. TOTAL guidelines for properly operated unit. Suggested to use this figure for Technical audit/ benchmarking purposes. North American Gas Industry accepted norm, as quoted by: Pipeline & Gas J, July 1988 (Improving Gas Dehydrator Efficiency, Randy Neal); Oil & gas J, Sept 1981 (Avoiding excessive glycol costs in operation of gas dehydrators); Simmons Charles); Hydrocarbon Processing, April 1977 (Operators Talkglycol dehydration, Ballard Don). Typically these cases refer to onshore/pipeline operations.

20-60 lit/MMSm3 0.05-0.30 gal/MMSCF -do25 lit/MMSm3 0.13 gal/MMSCF

2 3 4 5

0.1 gal/MMSCF

Some Reported Performances

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 25 lits/MMSm3 Negligible 0.25 gal/MMSCF 0.16-0.35 gal/MMSCF 7-40/75/12-25 lit/MMSm3 3 mg/Nm3 60 lit/MMSm3 Shell Expro (UK, Brent platform). The operating pressure was between 115-138 bara (gas density=140-170 kg/m3). Shell NAM offshore (Netherlands) , 136 barg, 30C, Sulzer Mellapack 250Y. Shell Gulf of Mexico (USA) Operating data. Suggested solubility losses in the order of 0.02-0.06 gal/MMSCF and about 0.2 gal/MMSCF for inefficient operation. ARCO Oil & Gas (USA), based on five most efficient packing test data (Structure packing proven superior for TEG gas drying; Kean et al, Oil & Gas J, Jul 2006). Operating data from 3 fields operated by TOTAL (locations undisclosed). Operating P,T conditions were: 50/55/26 barg, 61/60/25 C (TEG inlet temp); 3040/26/18C (Gas inlet temp). Sulzer quoting revamping experience with Mellapack-plus packing (New Frontiers in Glycol Contactor design, Brunet et al, GPA Amsterdam, Sept 2001). ONGC Bombay Offshore (India) Operating data for BPA platform (7% CO2).; Operating P=103 bar, Gas inlet temp=43 C, Glycol inlet temp=51C


Effects of Foaming on Packed Bed Efficiency


Effects of Foaming on Packed Bed Pr Drop


Foaming in Glycol Systems- Some Process Considerations

Key to Foam control in glycol dehydration system is to operate the plant within design limits and identification/rectification of the root cause of the problem. Use of anti-foams on a long term basis is not recommended as it continues to build-up in the closed circuit and over the time hardens the foam structure (particularly if glycol degradation products are available in the system). A case has been reported where prolonged use of antifoams totally reduced their effectiveness and entire glycol inventory was to be replaced. Often carry-over of condensates from upstream process equipment causes foaming. Upstream equipment adequacy should be checked when frequent foaming problems are reported and remedial actions to improve separation efficiency should be initiated. Carbon filters are effective in adsorbing condensates in glycol streams (a slip-stream, around 10% of lean glycol rate, is usually directed towards activated carbon bed). However if not properly maintained, carbon particles may enter the circulating glycol stream which can act as foam-stabilizer. Regeneration temperature should be properly maintained (<204C for TEG). Stripping gas rate should be optimized to avoid higher glycol loss. Glycol pH values should be regularly monitored which indicates the degree of glycol degradation. 14

Foaming in Amine Systems

Solvent foaming is a well known and #1 operating problem in Natural gas processing (Gas Sweetening) industry yet contaminants who actually cause the problem are seldom, if ever, are quantified.

Some startling facts on impacts due to foaming in Natural Gas Processing plants: Two of the most recognized area of revenue loss due to foaming are production loss and solvent loss. In one plant: Production loss of over $2M/year was reported. Over $500,000/year was spent to control foaming in amine unit. Particle filters were changed every hour to control foaming, costing over $400,000 / year. On average, amine inventories are changed 3 times/year. ...... Indirect costs associated with foaming were probably higher than direct costs. These included downstream process damage and environmental violations. Numerous case studies are available in literature describing various attempts made by EP Industry to tackle this problem- success stories came sometimes with changes in operating practices and sometimes with costly retrofits.

Key factors

Clean solvents do not foam. Foaming is caused by solvent contamination by carried over solids, erosion-corrosion products. liquid hydrocarbons, well treating chemicals, corrosion inhibitors, lubricants, acidic amine degradation products and antifoam additives. Solvent make-up water can also be a major source of foaming as it may contain corrosion inhibitors and chelating agents (used to treat boiler feed water). Most severe solvent contaminants are not visible. Check for Heat-Stable Salts (formate, oxalate, acetate, thio-cyanate, sulphate etc) which decrease amine solutions gas carrying capacity and increase viscosity , thus increasing Operating costs. Difficult to identify root cause. Filtration system design is a key component yet all its functionality not fully understood. A single filter may be effective in removing organic contaminants yet ineffective in antifoam additives. While antifoam agents reduce foaming tendency, they increase foam stability. Continued treatment with antifoams will initially knock back the foam, but will make the solution sensitive to smaller amounts of foam promoters. The best remedy is to eliminate the need for antifoam agents by removing liquid hydrocarbons and other surface active materials from the inlet gas. Activated carbon should be used to remove amine degradation products.

Predict Foaming in AGRU


Closing Remarks

Foaming creates undesirable, difficult to predict/control and highly expensive operational upset conditions.
Foaming mitigation is not an exact science- experience plays a big role. Aspects of foaming, its impact on operations and possible mitigating measures should be kept in mind while designing and operating EP facilities. There is no one-fits-all solution for foaming problems- each problem is unique and should be analysed in its own merit.

Thank you for this invitation !