TU Dedicates New Research Facility To Combat Hydrates that Plug Oil Pipelines

Friday, August 09, 2002

A new research facility aimed at eliminating and preventing pipe-plugging, ice-like hydrates in oil and gas pipelines was dedicated Thursday, Aug. 8, at The University of Tulsa’s north campus.

Hydrates form when oil and gas flowing through a pipeline encounter the right combination of temperature and pressure, such as on the ocean floor.

“When hydrates plug a pipeline, the loss of production can be costly and the plugs can be a safety issue,” says Mike Volk, director of the research project and TU’s manager of research and technology development.

Volk says workers unaware of the stoppage have been killed during the downstream venting operation because the plug partially melts, dislodges from the line and is propelled “like a bullet” by the high-pressure gas trapped inside the pipe.

Studies will be conducted using a $1.5 million “flow loop” that is 162 feet long. The oval-shaped loop is on an 80-foot-long steel platform that rests on a 10-foot tall pivot. This seesaw-like arrangement permits continuous rocking to simulate the flow of oil, water and gas.

View ports allow investigators to see inside the pipe, which has a diameter of three inches, and temperature and pressure can be controlled to simulate conditions in a pipeline. Initially, four types of crude oil will be used in the research.

The flow loop was donated to TU by Houston-based Marathon Oil Company and moved from Littleton, Colo. The relocation was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

“Ensuring the proper flow of oil and gas in many different, sometimes extreme, operating environments is a key challenge facing the industry,” says Paul Gardner, Marathon’s coordinating manager of technology. “Marathon is pleased to donate this flow loop facility to The University of Tulsa, where research is conducted in an environment that fosters broad-based collaboration for the mutual benefit of all parties.”

“Hydrates constitute 70 percent of the flow-assurance problems in the oil and gas industry,” says Volk. “Under the right conditions hydrates can form anytime and anywhere that hydrocarbons and water are present.”

The ice-like solids often form in pipelines on offshore wells, where the temperature of seawater at a depth of 2,000 feet would be about 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Other speakers at the dedication included Oklahoma’s Sen. James Inhofe and Rep. John Sullivan, Norm McMullen with British Petroleum and Bill Lawson with the U.S. Department of Energy.

The new TU Hydrate Flow Performance research facility is located on the university’s north campus, a 20-acre site about a mile and half north of TU’s main campus.

More than 40 petroleum industry companies from around the world are members of TU’s 15 research consortiums and joint industry projects, most of which are based on the north campus. Through these non-profit groups, companies pool resources and share research results. Studies are conducted by University of Tulsa professors and students.

Marathon is among the top five American oil companies specializing in exploration, development, production, refining, distribution and marketing.