Understanding the behavior of water-in-crude-oil emulsions is necessary to determine its effect on oil and gas production. The presence of emulsions in any part of the production system could cause many problems such as large pressure drop in pipelines due to its high viscosity. Electrical submersible pumps (ESPs) and gas lift are commonly used separately in lifting crude oil from wells. However, the use of downhole equipment and instruments such as ESPs that cause mixing can result in the formation of an emulsion with a high viscosity. The pressure required to lift emulsions is greater than the pressure required to lift non-emulsified liquids. Lifting an emulsion decreases the pressure drawdown capabilities, lowers production rate, increases the load on the equipment, shortens its life expectancy and can result in permanent equipment damage. Methods and apparatus which reduce the load on the pump, therefore, are desirable. The present paper is directed to understand the behavior of water-in-oil emulsions in artificial lift systems, mainly through gas lift.

Two stable water-in-oil synthetic emulsions were created in the laboratory and their rheology and stability characteristics were measured. One contained crude oil and the other, mineral oil. The second stage included measuring the effect of gas lift exposure on the emulsion behavior and characteristics. The results of the present work indicate that water-in-oil emulsions can be destabilized, and their viscosities lowered under gas exposure. The effect of gas injection on the emulsion was linked to the initial conditions of the emulsion as well as the gas type, injection rate and exposure time.

The present study is directed to methods and systems for combining both ESPs and gas lift for the purpose of improving and simplifying the lift of water-in-oil emulsions from oil wells. The novel methods and apparatus are based on the discovery that by adding gas above the ESPs in the wellbore, the viscosity of an oil-in-water emulsion is actually reduced, thus making it easier to lift oil from the well and extending the life of the ESP. Therefore, in addition to the normal benefits of gas in aiding the lift of liquids, if the gas lift valve is installed at a calculated distance above the pump location, the emulsion viscosity can be reduced. This reduces the load on the ESP.

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