Southwest Research Institute Develops New Process for Treating Heavy Crude Oils

SwRI’s EZ Flow treatment process is intended to cut down on cost and energy intensity of heavy-crude pipeline transportation.

In the photo, additive is being blended into heavy crude oil in this step of the SwRI-developed EZ Flow. The process treats heavy crude oils by using hydrodynamic cavitation mixing of heavy crude oil with a low-concentration chemical formulation to make a product that can be transported through existing pipeline.
SOURCE: Southwest Research Institute.

Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) scientists and engineers have developed what they describe as a new, economic method for processing heavy crude oil using a proprietary chemical treatment and mechanical technique. SwRI used internal research funding to develop its EZ Flow process, which makes pipeline transportation of the commodity more cost-effective and less energy-intensive than current techniques, said James Wood, a principal scientist in SwRI’s Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Division. .

“The new process reduces the viscosity of heavy crude oil by more than 60%, allowing it to flow more easily through existing pipeline networks,” said Wood in a news release.

The process allows for transport of the treated heavy crude over great distances without heating the pipeline and without adding large amounts of chemical or diluent, according to Wood. Conventional heavy-crude transport techniques are costly because they often use large volumes of chemicals or diluents and frequently require multiple treatment techniques to be applied simultaneously.

Transporting heavy crude oil and bitumen via pipeline is challenging because of its high density and viscosity and very low mobility at reservoir temperatures.

“The most important factor influencing its high viscosity are the intermolecular forces between the branched molecules and the tendency of the asphaltenes and paraffins to aggregate, producing cumuli of heavy hydrocarbons,” said Sergio Trevino, chemical engineer and SwRI consultant. “Those agglomerations have enough attraction between them to generate structural compression of the oil and reduce its volume. That, in turn, increases the viscosity of the heavy crude oil.”

The US has more than 190,000 miles of liquid petroleum pipeline networks. Pipeline transportation is an environmentally friendly, economic way to move crude oils over long distances. SwRI’s proof-of-concept technology offers a cost-effective means for conveying heavy and extra-heavy crude oils over long distances. Of the more than 80 million B/D of crude oil produced globally, about 11 million bbl are classified as heavy crude oils.

“According to industry experts, heavy crude oil production will increase exponentially over the next 80 years, as lighter crude oil reserves dwindle and those available become more expensive and difficult to recover,” Wood said.

The low concentrations of proprietary additives needed for EZ Flow make it more environmentally acceptable and less expensive than other currently available commercial technologies, according to SwRI. With further research and optimization, the technology could potentially be used to upgrade, or chemically treat, heavy crude. “The next step is to scale up the EZ Flow technology to start the commercialization process,” Wood said.