Development of a New Technology: Profiting From Temporary Setbacks During Scale-Up
- G.A. Nunez (Intevep S.A.) | H.J. Rivas (Intevep S.A.) | D.J. Rodriguez (Intevep S.A.) | I.A. Layrisse (Intevep S.A.)
- Document ID
- Society of Petroleum Engineers
- Journal of Petroleum Technology
- Publication Date
- May 1995
- Document Type
- Journal Paper
- 400 - 402
- 1995. Society of Petroleum Engineers
- 4.2 Pipelines, Flowlines and Risers, 2.5.2 Fracturing Materials (Fluids, Proppant), 4.3.4 Scale, 1.6.9 Coring, Fishing, 4.1.5 Processing Equipment, 6.1.5 Human Resources, Competence and Training, 4.1.2 Separation and Treating, 5.4.10 Microbial Methods, 5.7.2 Recovery Factors
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We present an overview of critical facets of development of the fuel, Orimulsion , emphasizing description of procedures and scale-up strategies rather than technical details. The seemingly unrelated events that led to the worldwide marketing of this new alternative fuel are placed into historical perspective. We showcase R&D, characterized by teamwork, to exploit unique natural resources at a time of changing economic conditions. The paper is a collection of related pieces of research and commercial approaches, all of which were aimed at exploiting the vast amount of hydrocarbon resources present in the Venezuelan Orinoco Belt. The many instances in which adjustments had to be made because of scale-up setbacks illustrate valuable lessons learned in the development of a new technology.
In the Beginning, There Was the Belt
It has long been known that the region in the northern basin of the Orinoco River in southeastern Venezuela contains vast amounts of heavy hydrocarbon reserves. That area, known as the Orinoco Belt, was the subject of an intense exploratory effort from 1978 to 1984. Geological studies, more than 16,000 seismic lines, and 662 exploratory wells showed that >1.2x1012 bbl of bitumen were present in the region. Assuming a recovery factor of 22%, the estimated reserves are 2.64x105 million bbl. On the basis of calorific value, these immense reserves are equivalent to 65 109 metric tons of coal. Steady production of 2 million B/D can be sustained for 350 years.
The foregoing scenario should be placed in the context of the Venezuelan oil industry in the early 1980's, after it had been nationalized by the government in 1974. Before then, the nation assigned a given region, or "concession," to a foreign oil company for development. After nationalization, Venezuela was faced with the complex organizational task of integrating the operations of a wide variety of oil companies with different cultures and approaches to the business into one state-owned corporation. The decision was to create a new "mother" company, Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA) to coordinate basically the same operating companies (with a new ownership).
The now-Venezuelan companies were gradually integrated until only three major groups remained. Two of them were formed from what were the Exxon and Shell companies in prenationalization times, while the third was created from myriad other small operations that had belonged to other international corporations (for example, Amoco, Chevron, and Gulf). The pre-existing national company was also integrated into this group. The personnel of all these organizations were mainly Venezuelans who had been hired by the foreign contractors. They had absorbed the culture and managerial style of the foreign companies and were accustomed to viewing technology as some sort of "commodity" they could obtain from their parent companies in the form of a technical service. This state of affairs prompted PDVSA to create an R&D arm, now known as Intevep S.A., with the mission of fulfilling the technical needs of the newly created corporation. The intricacies associated with that undertaking in a country with virtually no tradition of corporate research and scarce human resources are very interesting, but lie beyond the scope of this paper.
The formidable riches present in the Orinoco Belt make it easy to understand why one of the first missions assigned to Intevep was to carry out research to exploit this region profitably. That initiative started at the beginning of the 1980's.
The Initial Vision
Reviewing the evolution of the oil business over the last 15 years, it is easy to understand the prevailing conditions that existed during 1980-84. Oil prices had been steadily increasing, and at the time, upgrading seemed to be the technological alternative of choice to develop the Orinoco Belt. Therefore, scientists at Intevep formulated the problem as a dual one. First, they deemed it necessary to investigate refining to see what processes were available and what was required further. The nature of the hydrocarbons present in the belt (very low API gravity) also posed the question of how to transport bitumen to an upgrading facility 249 to 497 miles away. The stage was then set to work on these two fronts with the same intensity. We will focus on the description of the transport initiative that was the genesis of the emulsification technology.
The task given to Intevep also had one additional feature. Virtually no pre-existing technology existed, and it was essentially a concern solely of the Venezuelan nation. No one else would undertake the massive research effort required to develop the Orinoco oil belt because it is a unique reservoir. That apparent disadvantage worked to compensate for intangible liabilities, such as the previously mentioned lack of corporate research tradition. Managers at Intevep made an all-out effort to compensate for any deficiencies, even if they had to look outside for help. This way of conducting business is an important highlight of this story.
The puzzle associated with the economic transportation of bitumen was initially solved "on the drawing table" by means of two lines of research, core annular flow and emulsification. We will discuss the latter. It was necessary to handle a highly viscous material (viscosity >100,000 cp) at room temperature without considering the conventional methods of heating and dilution. In the realm of emulsification, the problem had a set of requirements that served as the starting point for the research. Bitumen was to be pipelined in the form of a stable water-continuous emulsion that would be easy to break. For its preparation, the availability of low-cost surfactants that would work at low concentration was necessary. (At the time, the only precedent was asphalt emulsions.) In addition, large-scale >10,000 B/D) emulsifying equipment was required.
The initial stages of development of a suitable transportation scheme were carried out at the laboratory level. The main objective was to have an appropriate emulsion formulation. Methodologies were established to screen available surfactants that would comply with the requirements. The team working in this phase was composed mainly of chemists and chemical engineers, but clearly lacked process engineering expertise. Part of the research was conducted jointly with British Petroleum and local universities. Toward the end of 1984, the group achieved its first breakthrough. The team was able to size the emulsion in a controlled fashion with low mixing energy, achieving a significant viscosity reduction with good stability. Moreover, they studied the breaking of the emulsion at the laboratory and pilot scale with promising results. So far, so good. But that was not the end of the story.
The First Adjustment
The high hopes that were generated by the initial successes were suddenly silenced by the oil crisis of 1984-85. Prices fell sharply, giving rise to a new scenario for the ongoing research.
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