One of the exciting possibilities of the push to lower-carbon hydrocarbon energy sources is the opportunity to both reduce GHG emissions while reducing costs—a win-win for both the environment and economic growth. One Canadian company is helping to make this happen for natural gas producers—by leveraging a technology that was originally created to make automobiles run cleaner.
The technology relates to engines. You have them in your car. Oil and natural gas producers use engines as well.
Notably, as natural gas is pumped up through the ground to production wells, large industrial engines using reciprocating compressors push the gas on its way to plants, pipelines and eventually homes. The performance of these compressor engines, which mostly run on natural gas, is critical to the success of the operation. Spartan Controls, a Western Canadian company specializing in automation, valves, measurement and process-control solutions, has found a way to make these engines run leaner and greener via a patented air-fuel ratio control system called REMVue.
It’s an innovation that originated more than a decade ago through discussions with customers.
“Our oil and gas customers were telling us about the operating problems they were having with their natural gas engines—some of which were 30 years old,” says Cam Dowler, a technical specialist at Spartan Controls.
Such conversations prompted Dowler and the company’s technology development group to begin studying different industries to find the right answer.
“We began to explore process control ideas along with new innovations in engine and combustion management,” Dowler says.
What’s old is new again
Eventually the group landed on a unique solution. They applied advanced ideas from automotive engineering—such as those that allow vehicles to improve engine efficiency and fuel economy—to create a new control system (a technology that manages how other devices work) that could meet their customers’ needs. When retrofitted onto a natural gas engine, the new REMVue air-fuel control system would “lean out” the air-fuel mixture (in other words, decrease the amount of fuel needed for combustion), allowing older industrial engines to operate at more optimized air-fuel ratios than originally designed. The benefits would be significant: a boost in engine performance and reliability, noticeable fuel savings (about 15 percent on average) and lower GHGs and tailpipe emissions of nitrogen oxides.
Encouraged by their findings, the Spartan team turned next to Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada (PTAC), an industry-funded innovation incubator that supports market-driven technologies and cross-industry collaboration.
“Through PTAC, we were able to team up with an end-user willing to try new approaches to improve engine management,” says Mark Guirguis, account manager at Spartan Controls.
In 2010, as part of an energy-efficiency project, ConocoPhillips Canada agreed to test the new REMVue system, along with other GHG emissions reduction technologies, in their Alberta field operations. Throughout the five-year project, Spartan Controls worked closely with the producer to monitor performance in the field and look for improvements.
“We needed to be able to look at all the parameters that go into making the different compressor engines run well and produce natural gas efficiently,” Dowler says.
At the same time, PTAC agreed to fund third-party studies on the field installations so industry could begin to evaluate the costs and performance of the system.
“The studies and the information-sharing that happened enabled a larger industry acceptance of the technology, because PTAC members could see the rigor and data backing the pilot,” Dowler says.
Improved engines save on costs, improve performance and reliability
Today more than 400 REMVue units have been installed at oil and gas facilities across Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia. According to PTAC estimates, these investments are helping customers to save about $15 million in operating costs and cut 900,000 tonnes of GHG emissions each year.
Dowler says REMVue has proven to be a big help to upstream producers that must count on the large industrial engines, which average about 1500 hp, to run virtually around the clock every day.
“By improving and optimizing the engines with REMVue, customers are consistently seeing increased performance and reliability.”
Guirguis adds: “With REMVue, we’re extending the life of older engine assets while providing the advantage of new performance. It’s like taking a ‘57 Chevy and getting it to run smoothly and cleanly like a modern car.”