Students, professor develop new tech for clogged oil pipelines
What started as a project for four University of Houston students with the help of a professor for the University’s petroleum engineering capstone course last year might end as a technological breakthrough for the oil industry.
The new technology — a rudimentary prototype designed by Konstantinos Kostarelos, associate professor of petroleum engineering at UH — corrects the problem of pipeline clogs caused by components of crude oil known as asphaltenes. These molecules, Kostarelos said, are costly to the industry because they cause delays in oil production.
“The problem they cause is they coat the inside of a pipeline, and that means the coating inside the pipeline builds,” Kostarelos said. “The inside diameter of the pipe gets smaller, and the flow that can get through the pipe gets restricted. It’s a similar problem that happens in household waterpipes, although the cause is different.”
Kostarelos said that two current solutions are either to pump additives into the oil to break up the blockage or temporarily stop the flow of production and physically remove the obstruction with a pick.
The prototype, which is the first of many steps in the development process, was designed and tested during the 2015-2016 academic year by Kostarelos and UH petroleum engineering students Clint Martin, Kyo Tran, Jose Moreno and Aaron Hubik, as well as Shahab Ayatollahi of the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, Iran.
“It was for our senior capstone class with professor Scott Randall and at the beginning, they encouraged us to look for projects outside of school with outside companies,” said Moreno, who graduated in May. “We couldn’t find an outside project, so we asked Dr. K if we could work on his project. He encouraged us to try the flow, and we just went along with it.”
The process, Moreno said, uses two parallel pieces — one positively charged and one negatively charged — which attract the asphaltene particles out of the blockage.
“It’s similar to a magnet because we would have a negatively charged piece and a positively charged piece, and it would be attracted to the negative part,” Moreno said.
The group’s project produced results that were better than expected: the prototypes attracted the molecules from a model oil. The students earned an A for the course.
“We’re taking advantage of the fact that these molecules are polar, or some might call it polarizable, and we’re using charge — an electric field — to attract those molecules to one electrode,” Kostarelos said. “Our device would get full of these asphaltene particles and remove them from the flow, so they wouldn’t be in the flow anymore to cause problems downstream.”
This is the first of many steps in the development process, but Kostarelos said he hopes a full-scale prototype can be built and tested on a real pipeline in two years.
“Our ultimate goal is to build a device that would remove asphaltenes from crude oil near the point of production using electrokinetics,” the group wrote in the Journal of Petroleum Technology in March. “Thus, a scaled-down device was fabricated and tested using a model oil to prove the concept and study some of the parameters that would influence the design of a larger-scale device.”
Moreno, who works for a small architecture firm, said he hopes to work on the device if it continues to develop.
“I’m not sure if I will,” Moreno said. “But I’d like to, if the opportunity presented itself.”