One of the longest tenured LSPI employees is Ray Johnston, senior principal engineer, from the research & development group in Ponca City, Oklahoma. Ray began his career with LSPI (then part of Conoco, Inc.) as a research engineer in 1980. Ray had recently graduated with his Master's Degree in Chemical Engineering from Oklahoma State University when he joined Conoco's new R&D center. When he joined the group, his manager asked him if he'd prefer to work on a refinery optimization project or work on drag reducing agent (DRA) technology. Fortunately for LSPI, Ray opted for the latter.
Ray, tell us about your first Assignment with LSPI.
When I joined Conoco in 1980, we had recently introduced CDR 101, the first commercially produced drag reducer for pipelines. The product was an instant commercial success and our main customer wanted us to aggressively ramp up production. My job was to figure out how drag reducer worked so we could improve field performance and broaden its use.
One emphasis of this early work was investigating the relationship between product dosage and percent drag reduction. To do this, I set up a flow loop in the Ponca City laboratories. This research developed the classic dose response curve that forms the basis of characterizing DRA performance to this date. I also developed a lot of application-related knowledge, which helped customers achieve the best possible performance.
We soon discovered that customers needed help to implement DRA in the field. Another important part of my job was to visit customer sites and help get them started with set-up guidance and injection equipment.
What was this first drag reducer like?
The first DRA was referred to as "Gel" and was part of the original CDR brand. The active ingredient was a long chain, high molecular weight polymer, and it was produced in solution in a hydrocarbon solvent. Due to the strong elastic properties of the DRA polymer, the gel aggressively stuck to itself. It was almost impossible to pour out half a glass of gel. It was similar to a liquid rubber band, and stuck to everything; sampling material required scissors to actually cut the gel apart.
What were some of the early challenges working with gel DRA in the field?
We learned the importance of getting the injection equipment and rates just right. Gel DRA worked best when injected into the pipeline in a long continuous, stable "strand." This strand was a string of DRA which elongated downstream in the pipeline and remained connected to the injection port. The polymer would best dissolve into the crude from the surface of the strand. Specific nozzle designs and orifice sizes were selected to lengthen the strand and optimize DRA dissolution in the crude.
How did you figure this out? Was it mostly trial and error?
There was a lot of brainstorming and theorizing about what was actually happening as we injected the product into the pipeline. We installed a flow loop to run tests in our labs, but the key event was that we added a clear glass section of pipe in the flow loop so we could actually see what was happening in the fluid stream. We learned that strand stability was also dependent on injection velocity. If you pumped the gel into the crude too fast or too slow, the strand would break away and curl up into a ball which would not readily dissolve in the crude; this reaction dramatically reduced performance.
What would you do if needed to increase injection rates beyond the stable strand level?
We determined that you needed to add additional injection ports in the pipeline wall. Some of our early applications in Alaska had 8 injection ports in a ring around the pipe or along a line within about five feet of each other in order to get enough DRA dosage and not compromise strand stability.
Who were the first customers?
Our first customer was the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS), an 800-mile pipeline that transported crude oil from the North Slope of Alaska to the southern port at Valdez. Production from Alaska was of critical importance in the late 1970s. There was a fire at a TAPS pump station which dropped pipeline throughput. One of the engineers at TAPS recalled seeing a technical paper from Conoco about drag reducer, and he contacted Conoco to arrange for a field demonstration. The demonstration was a success, and they immediately wanted the company to ramp up production. I joined the business at about that time.
Soon after, Conoco itself began to deploy CDR on several of their own pipelines. I recall we supplied an export line from the Murchison offshore field in the North Sea, and crude pipelines from Wichita Falls to Ponca City and from Cut Bank to Billings, Montana.
The second significantly large project was with Esso in Australia. Esso operated a 500 thousand barrels per day offshore export line in the Bass Straight, which became constrained when Australia decided to export oil. I went to Australia to supervise the initial demonstration and start-up of CDR for them between Thanksgiving and Christmas of 1982; Esso was very impressed with the flow increase DRA enabled. CDR immediately became so desirable to their operations that we sent their first shipment of product from the United States to Australia by air, in transport jets.
Looking back over the years, what were the major breakthroughs that stand out in your mind?
The development of suspension DRA in the mid-1990s was a huge step for the industry. When we developed suspension, Conoco was part of DuPont. That relationship added to our understanding of polymer science and reaction chemistry. We were able to achieve much higher concentrations of active ingredient than was possible with gel product. LP™100 was the result of this effort, and it revolutionized the DRA industry. From our perspective, gel product became nearly obsolete soon after LP™100 was introduced.
Another major breakthrough was our development of ExtremePower® Flow Improver, which is the only DRA which works effectively in true heavy crude oil. Early studies had shown that the traditional DRA polymers did not work at all in a true asphaltenic heavy crude oil. We formed a "Heavy Oil Team" in 2005 to work aggressively on this problem, as we anticipated a substantial increase of heavy crude oil flow from Canada. The end result of collaboration of all our research chemists and engineers was a new polymer and process. The polymer actually loves heavy crude oil and can generate very high levels of performance in what we would consider tough hydraulic conditions.
Were there similar challenges getting LP™100 into the field?
Suspension DRA was generally easier to handle than gel in the field. It was far less sensitive to pipeline injection conditions. It also didn't require a pressurized tank for product storage, but it was sensitive in other ways to product storage and handling conditions. We dedicated tremendous time and effort in designing and optimizing our skids to create the best environment for storing our suspension DRA products.
What about manufacturing drag reducer? What changes have you seen?
Gel was originally produced at a Conoco Chemicals Plant in Lake Charles, LA and then literally moved across the street to the Conoco Refinery to be closer to a raw material stream. When the company introduced LP™100 suspension, the production process was so different it was immediately apparent that we needed a completely new plant. While we temporarily produced LiquidPower™ product from our development sites in Oklahoma and South Carolina, we purchased the Bryan plant from its original owner who had used the facility to manufacture ink. The Bryan plant was selected primarily for its inland location, and good road and rail access. We built the plant as a full service production site, raw materials to finished product.
Today LSPI is recognized for supplying turnkey DRA installation and service. Has it always been that way?
It was evident from the very beginning that everything needs to work together to maximize the benefit and results of DRA use. The product-equipment interaction has always been critical, but the logistics piece was also key. We always made certain that our supply chain was secure; if the product isn't available, the customer isn't able to optimize their operations to boost throughput and increase profitability. Witnessing DRA loaded onto Hercules jets to get to a customer impressed upon me the high value that DRA use can offer our customers, and the commitment of the company to provide efficient logistical support. That aspect of our business hasn't changed very much since my first day of work back in 1980. We continue to optimize the product, and ensure we have a complete full service package. We know that our customers are busy, and, throughout the business, each employee does their part to ensure we keep the process seamless. Our goal is to handle as much as possible behind the scenes to simplify and optimize DRA use in the field.