Who are facilities engineers and what is it that they do? The answer to this question has changed during my career in the oil and gas business. It used to be that facilities engineers were simply a mix of civil, chemical, mechanical, and electrical engineers, supported by the odd specialist with a materials science or chemistry degree.
Today, we are more diverse with subsea engineers, process engineers, and instrument and control engineers joining the traditional core groups. Our ranks are also being joined by folks with hybrid degrees, such as mechatronics, that bridge the gap between two or more of the traditional disciplines. These are popular with undergraduates because they offer a broader platform on which to develop the skills needed for our industry. Inevitably, facilities engineers have become a more diverse group with a broader remit than before.
This is all for the good as we aspire to design and develop more efficient and effective facilities to enable the production of hydrocarbon resources. Our collective abilities have changed. We now develop solutions to the challenges of oil and gas production; we do not just design separators or pumps from a mechanical standpoint.
For the most part, our language has changed: We now talk about fluids-based design, life cycle design, and design for reliability—terms that were not common 25 years ago across the industry.
I am a chemical engineer by degree and many years ago, my first venture into the real world of oilfield facilities engineering was in troubleshooting and optimizing the design of a three-phase separator.
On the surface, it was simple, straightforward, and easy. I just needed to ensure that there was adequate residence time for the phases to disengage, control the liquid level using a weir, and ensure reasonable inlet flow with a straight length of pipe.
However, I soon realized that my task was not that simple. The separator was installed on an offshore platform with changing feed conditions, and making the separator bigger was not an option. I was limited to 3 minutes of residence time, and with water cut increasing into the 30% range, the fluids were suddenly not easy to separate.
I learned that there were good basic design guides for separators, but none fully took into account the fluid characteristics or stability of emulsions. In fact, the reason I got the job was that the existing separator was not performing well, despite good mechanical “tweaks” having been applied.
The obvious soon dawned on me: I needed to understand the fluid to understand how to ensure effective separation, which led me on a journey into the study of surface chemistry, demulsification, foam stability, coagulation, flocculation and coalescence, wax and solids control, as well as level control, design of chemical injection systems, and, of course, design uncertainty.
The net result of my travails was an understanding that mechanical separation and heat alone would not ensure success—effective production chemistry and steady state operations were also necessary.
You may think, “There is nothing revolutionary there,” but the results we saw were dramatic. Once we had harmonized the mechanical and chemical requirements, we saw a 20% increase in fluid handling capacity and achieved significantly cleaner product streams. We achieved almost perfect phase separation.
This was a classic “light bulb moment” for me because we had historically looked at the mechanical and chemical aspects as complementary, but separate, systems. The production chemicals were a necessary evil, an expense we had to endure to make the separators work.
But this was far from the truth. I began to understand how production chemicals could be matched to separator and system parameters to deliver desired performance. Instead of being a byproduct of trial and error, this was a design parameter I could manipulate. In fact, I was so taken with my newfound knowledge that I began to use the term “chemo-mechanical” to describe the process of separation and went on to apply this more holistic approach to complete productions systems.
The result was the concept of integrated treatment systems and a change in the approach taken by our facilities engineering group to the production separation systems design, operation, and optimization. The key was recognizing that the fluid and its behavior were the critical factors in separation.
To understand this, we need cross-functional knowledge. We need to develop as facilities engineers, and not as chemical engineers, mechanical engineers, or electrical engineers.
I learned this a long time ago, and with the emergence of i-field/e-field, and new understandings of human factors, process safety, and environmental engineering, I think we should ask ourselves a new question: Who are facilities engineers and what should they know?
Paul S. Jones is the subsea unit manager at Chevron and a past SPE technical director of Projects, Facilities, and Construction.
He is a member of the Editorial Board of Oil and Gas Facilities.