You are on page 1of 6

SPE-184221-MS

Gas Lift - Past & Future

Abdel BenAmara, Silverwell

Copyright 2016, Society of Petroleum Engineers

This paper was prepared for presentation at the SPE Middle East Artificial Lift Conference and Exhibition held in Manama, Kingdom of Bahrain, 30 November-1
December 2016.

This paper was selected for presentation by an SPE program committee following review of information contained in an abstract submitted by the author(s). Contents
of the paper have not been reviewed by the Society of Petroleum Engineers and are subject to correction by the author(s). The material does not necessarily reflect
any position of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, its officers, or members. Electronic reproduction, distribution, or storage of any part of this paper without the written
consent of the Society of Petroleum Engineers is prohibited. Permission to reproduce in print is restricted to an abstract of not more than 300 words; illustrations may
not be copied. The abstract must contain conspicuous acknowledgment of SPE copyright.

Abstract
This paper will describe the evolution of gas lift systems over the past few decades, making parallels with
other artificial lift technologies (ESP, SRP, and PCP) and how they have evolved. The paper will then focus
on new smart gas lift technology outlining its main characteristics and comparing it to existing technologies.
A historical overview of the evolution of gas lift will be given since it was first used to lift oil wells in
the 19th century until today's digital systems. Advantages and limitations of each technology will be given,
explaining the need for evolution, and paving the way to the next generations of gas lift systems required to
lift oil wells with an always improved system's efficiency, reliability and ease of operation. A comparison
with other types of artificial lift systems will also be made, showing how innovations helped to overcome
challenges faced.
This paper will demonstrate that gas lift systems have evolved significantly from the 1860's until the
1950's, but it has seen very few improvements since then. Side pocket mandrels which are widely used
nowadays bring clear advantages compared to other artificial lift systems, but are still limited in terms of
flexibility and adaptability to changing reservoir conditions as well as their integration into the digital smart
field. On the other hand, other types of artificial lift systems have seen significant evolutions during the past
few years with the apparition of downhole monitoring sensors and surface smart controllers. This paper will
show that new smart gas lift systems could help bridge this technology gap, allowing for a wider use of
gas lift across oilfields, facilitating gas lift systems integration into the digital oilfields and resulting in an
improved system efficiency, higher reliability, and reduction of HSE risks.
New information will be given in this paper on a new type of smart gas lift system, which could bring
a step change on how gas lift is used in our industry.

Gas lift history


Gas lift is a method of artificial lift that uses an external source of high-pressure gas to assist lifting the well
fluids from the reservoir to the surface. The gas is injected from the surface, usually thanks to compressors,
through the casing of the wells and into the tubing. It will reduce the overall density of the fluid column,
and the gas bubbles will have a scrubbing action of the liquids, which will result in lowering the flowing
bottom hole pressure and increasing production.
2 SPE-184221-MS

These forms of lift were used as far back as 1797 in mines to lift water from mine shafts. These systems
used single point injection of air into the liquid stream, normally through a foot valve at the bottom of the
string.
Gas lift was used as early as 1864 in Pennsylvania to lift oil wells, also using compressed air, via an air
pipe bringing the air to the bottom of the well. Air was also used in Texas for large-scale artificial lift.
In 1920 natural gas replaced air, lowering the risk of explosion. From 1929 until 1945 about 25000 patents
were issued on different types of gas lift valves that could be used for unloading in stages. Some of these
systems involved moving the tubing, or using wireline sinker bars to change the lift point. Others were
spring operated valves.
Ultimately, in 1944 W.R. King patented the pressurized bellows valve that is most commonly used today.
In 1951 the sidepocket mandrel was developed for selectively positioning and retrieving gas lift valves with
wireline.
A typical gas lift completion consists of several side pocket mandrels installed at different depths along
the tubing string. The upper mandrels are typically equipped with unloading valves, allowing the gas injected
in the casing to enter the tubing and unload the well from completion fluids. Gas can then progress deeper
in the well to the next unloading valve, and the valves bellows set for specific pressures causes the upper
valve to close when the lower one opens, allowing regulation of the casing pressure and the possibility to
progress down the well until the final injection orifice is reached.
Since W.R. King patent, there has been some evolutions in the design of the valves used, such as the
Venturi type orifices, which allow for a more stable gas injection, and so called "V0" or bubble tight check
valves which increases well integrety. There has not however been any major innovations in the gas lift
systems we are using nowadays compared to the ones used in the 1950's. There are several factors that
can explain this lack of innovation, the main one being that side pocket mandrels (SPM) with pressurized
bellows valves is a good technology with many advantages:
there is a relatively small number of moving parts and robust design which allows to frequently
achieve several years of runlife,
in case of failure they can be replaced with a wireline unit,
the pressurized bellows act as pressure regulators which directs the gas automatically to the desired
injection point, with minimum input required from the operators,
the cost is usually much lower than any other types of artificial lift methods.
All of the above elements combined with our well known industry conservatism, limited the need for a
new technology to replace the existing one. Nevertheless, SPMs and pressurized bellows still have a number
of limitations which impact the overall efficiency of the gas lift systems.
Gas Charged Bellows
Cause valves to be pressure dependent.
Cause valve operation to vary with temperature.
Needs intervention to change the flowrate as conditions change.
Fixed Orifice Size
Works in a small operating window.
Restricts the maximum flowrate.
Needs intervention to change the flowrate as conditions change.
SPE-184221-MS 3

Pressure Dependence
Valve instability can occur with well pressure and temperature fluctuations.
Valve damage can occur due to chatter
Gas Lift Design
Needs accurate knowledge to properly design.
Safety factors required to manage poor data and operational requirements.

All of the above can often make gas lift inefficient or even not economically viable for the high
performance and safety needs of today's operations. This is true for for both onshore and offshore operations,
but especially so for deep water and subsea completions where gas lift can be extremely risky and costly to
operate. This all means that there is a need for innovation in this field, new technology is required that will
increase operational flexibility by giving operators more control and insight into their well performance.

Evolution of other artificial lift methods


The other commonly used artificial lift technologies that are used today have also been around for many
years but generally have seen significant evolution in the past few decadews. They have adopted electronics
and digital features allowing them to improve their reliability, flexibility and overall efficiency.
Electrical submersible pumps (ESP) for instance were first used in 1916 for dewatering mines and ships
in Germany and then later in 1926 the ESP industry formed in America with early units being deployed
in 1930.
The years that followed had lots of activity with many new companies forming and the technology
developing. Early in the development of ESPs run lifes could be short however, and failures at installation
were common. As time has passed and due to their high installed cost and their ability to have high yields
they have been extensively developed to improve reliability and deal with gases, debris and sands. The
introduction of variable speed drives (VSDs) also has made them a more flexible tool allowing operators
to have more control over their wells.
This use of VSDs was then quickly adopted by sucker rod pumps (SRPs) and progressing cavity pumps
(PCPs) increasing the operation windows of these artificial lift systems allowing for more flexibility to
changing well conditions and longer run lives.
Permanent downhole gauges have also seen a great expansion, they are now able to measure a variety of
data from pressure and temperature, to vibration, noise, strain, flow, etc Installing them in combination
with an artificial system allows monitoring of wells and performances of the artificial lift equipment, and
facilitates production optimization as well as troubleshooting, hence improving the overall effectiveness
of the system.
Instrumentation and sensors facilitated access to downhole and surface data, which paved the way for
"smart controllers" to be implemented in order to control ESP, SRP or PCP. At any instant during the life of
a well, there is a single constraint that limits production. Production can be maximized by forcing the system
to operate at that particular constraint limiting production at each instant of time. Smart controllers have
been used to determine the applicable limits and move smoothly between them in real time. Models of all
the system elements are run in real time at the wellhead to detect appropriate limits and enforce associated
control strategies.
Integrating these types of systems into a "digital oilfield" allow for automation or at least facilitate field
wide production optimization and the overall operational efficiency of the oilfield and higher returns for
the operators and asset owners.
4 SPE-184221-MS

Commodity vs. engineered systems


Gas lift equipment such as valves and mandrels are often considered as a commodity in the oil and gas
industry and are sometimes categorized under the completion equipments instead of the artificial lift. A
commodity does not require a significant amount of engineering time for its selection, and could be procured
in large quantities and installed in a standardized manner across the field.
However, these are key components for the production optimization of the wells. A wrong design,
equipment selection, installation or equipment failure, could result in significant production losses for the
operator.
For the same field and same reservoir being produced, each well will have its own singularities and
production behavior. Consequently it is of utmost importance to adapt the artificial lift system and select
the equipment that will provide the most adapted response to the specific well characterisitcs, and manage
gas lift equipment as a complex engineered system.
Designing a gas lift system that optimizes production is a complex challenge. Engineers must account
for the interaction of all parts of the production system. The potential, constraints and needs of each well
must be considered individually along with those of the network as a whole. Flowline and downhole tubular
sizes and length, processing equipment, compressor availability, gas quality, fluid composition and other
factors impact gas lift effiency and production.
Engineers require tools with sufficient flexibility to manage the complexity and uncertainties inherent to
gas lift design, and with the capacity to evolve and react quickly to changes of well conditions. Very often a
fixed orifice size at a given setting depth, will provide efficient gas lifting only for a short period of the life
of the well. In order to optimize underperforming wells, the operator would then require well interventions
to modify the orifice size or setting depth of the gas injection.
Furthermore, when a gas lift system start performing poorly, there is a very good chance that no one will
notice. It is not an event that demands attention like a broken pump. The system will continue injecting gas
into the well, and the well will continue producing, but not as much oil as it could be. Accurate downhole data
associated to the relevant surveillance software would allow to tackle this issue and significantly improve
the overall effieicny of gas lift systems across our fields.

Digital gas lift technology


Gas lift is moving into the digital age with the creation of the digital gas lift system. The digital gas lift system
is an electronically controlled mandrel, which is tubing conveyed and installed along with the tubing string
during a workover operation. The mandrel includes up to 6 independent injection orifices, each individually
controlled from the surface, with a large spectrum of gas injection rates.
The operator can vary the gas injection rate by opening or closing valves, in any combination, which can
each have a different port size, which gives the operator a huge range of possible injection rates.
The mandrel is controlled by a Surface Control System (SCS), connected to the mandrel through a
downhole electrical control line which is typically " in diameter. A single SCS with a single control line can
control and communicate with multiple digital gas lift mandrels on the same tubing string. Hence several of
them could be installed for the purpose of unloading well and the lowest unit could be used for gas injection.
Each digital gas lift mandrel is also equipped with pressure sensors measuring tubing and casing pressures
as well as a temperature sensor measuring the tubing temperature. Sensors data is sent and stored in the
SCS through the control line.
The SCS is also equipped with a Modbus connection in order to connect it to a SCADA type
communication system, allowing operators to monitor and operate the units remotely. It then becomes
possible from a land based operator's office, to open and close gas lift valves from an offshore production
well, as well as monitor in real time pressure and temperature data along the tubing string.
SPE-184221-MS 5

This facilitates greatly field wide gas lift management, as one single operator could react in real time
and from his desk, to any unforeseen events such as a compressor failure, and reallocate gas available to
the most prolific wells in order to keep production optimized. This will also avoid physical trips to well
locations and their related HSE impacts, especially for offshore or distant desert locations.
The digital features of the system also allows for easy integration into a smart digital field. With the
availability of sensors data and the possibility to control the valves digitally, it becomes possible to automate
gas lift operations. By linking the digital gas lift system to a dedicated software program, several processes
such as well unloading, production optimization, gas usage optimization, troubleshooting, could be done
automatically under the supervision of the operator.
The possibility to install several units at different depths along the tubing string, and the large spectrum
of gas injection rates available for each unit, allows to design and implement the digitial gas lift system
for the life of the well, eliminating any requirements for interventions to change a valve or an orifice,
which could be extremely costly for offshore, deepwater or subsea applications. The ability to control the
valves downhole without pressure dependance also allows efficient operation in dual completions. Indeed
with standard pressure operated valves, it is extremely difficult to allocate the right amount of gas to each
production string in a dual well, as the gas will tend to follow the lowest pressure path. But with the digital
gas lift system, the operator can adjust in real time port sizes downhole and orient the gas to optimize
production of both strings.
Thanks to the several advantages listed above, it could be envisaged that this digital gas lift system
becomes the new generation of gas lift, replacing existing pressure operated devices. However, the mandrels
being tubing conveyed, one major key to its potential success, is proving the reliability of the system in time.
Indeed a failure in the system could require a workover to replace the unit. But it is to be noted here, that
the initial reliability figures are extremely promising with a design life of the tools of up to 10 years, with
additional higher temperature boards in development which should extend the life far beyond this. This is
achieved by building reliability into the design of the system, with a major aspect being that the downhole
mandrels are not permamently powered. Power is sent to the downhole units through the control line only
when an instruction is given to open or close or valve or to receive sensors data. This avoids any potential
heating and ageing of the electronic components of the system as well as the downhole cable, and allows
achieving run lives equivalent to the life of the completion or the life of the well.
The success of this promising technology will mostly rely on early adopters in the industry, allowing to
build a track record of references across a variety of fields and well conditions. This would allow to give
confidence to the industry on the reliability of the system as well as demonstrate in field environment the
benefits of the changes that the technology is bringing. Several pilots are currently being planned in both
onshore and offshore fields in order to build this track record. For these pilots, side pocket mandrels with
dummy valves can be installed as a back up solution in order to mitigate the risk of workover in case of
failure, the operator could simply start operating with the SPM by replacing the dummy with a valve or
an orifice.

Conclusion
Gas lift is one of the most common artificial lift technologies, lifting reservoir fluids to surface at rates
which wells are not able to sustain naturally. Its popularity is related to its inherent ability to handle gassy;
sandy; corrosive fluids in deviated wells and its applicability to a wide range of production rates. These
are the implicit assumptions that have been associated with gas lift for the last half century or more. But in
that time period the oil industry has undergone significant transformation; moving geographically from its
original land base to deepwater offshore provinces; and moving technically from slick wire intervention to
remote real time management of digital intelligent completions. Gas lift technology, however, has virtually
stood still the technology that time forgot!
6 SPE-184221-MS

Digitial gas lift technology represents a step change in gas lift operations across our fields. It has the
potential to become the technology of choice for gas lifted fields and gradually replace pressure operated
valves. As for all new technologies, early adopters in the industry will play a key role opening the door to
a wider market penetration across offshore and onshore fields.

References
SPE-1014-0101-JPT 155 Years of Artificial Lift Robin Beckwith
SPE EuALF 2016 7 Things You need to Know about Gas Lift Cameron Laing
Oilfield Technology Winter 2006 The pressure's on Innovations in Gas Lift Maharon Bin Jadid
Enhanced Gas Lift Valve Performance for Sharp Edged Seat Using Larger Ball Sizes Thesis Fathi Elldakli
Defining gas lift Rick von Flatern