What does a separator do in oil and gas?

Answered by Tom Adger

A separator in the oil and gas industry plays a crucial role in the process of separating a well stream into its gaseous and liquid components. This separation is necessary to ensure efficient and effective processing and transportation of the extracted hydrocarbons. The primary purpose of a separator is to remove the undesirable elements such as water, sand, and other impurities from the well stream, thereby improving the quality and purity of the extracted oil and gas.

The operation of a separator involves the utilization of differences in physical properties, such as density and viscosity, to separate the different phases present in the well stream. Generally, separators work on the principle of gravity separation, where the heavier components settle at the bottom while the lighter components rise to the top. This process is aided by the application of pressure and the use of internal components such as baffles, weirs, and coalescers.

1. Separation of Gas:
The gas component of the well stream, often referred to as the “gas phase,” is separated from the liquid components in the separator. This gas phase typically consists of natural gas, which is primarily composed of methane along with other hydrocarbons such as ethane, propane, and butane. The separation of gas from the well stream is essential for several reasons:

– Transportation: The extracted gas needs to be transported through pipelines or stored in tanks for further processing or distribution. Separating the gas phase ensures that only the desired components are transported, leading to increased efficiency and reduced costs.

– Safety: Gas separation is crucial for safety reasons. The presence of gas in the liquid phase can cause hazards such as explosions or fires, especially during storage or transportation. By separating the gas phase, the risk of such accidents is minimized.

– Utilization: The separated gas phase can be further processed to remove impurities and contaminants, making it suitable for various applications such as heating, electricity generation, or as a feedstock for the petrochemical industry.

2. Separation of Liquids:
The liquid components of the well stream, often referred to as the “liquid phase,” consist of oil, water, and other liquids present in the reservoir. The separation of these liquids is equally important as the separation of gas:

– Oil Recovery: The primary purpose of separating the liquid phase is to recover the valuable oil component. The separated oil can then be further processed to remove impurities, such as sulfur or heavy metals, and to refine it into various petroleum products.

– Water Removal: Water is a common impurity in the extracted well stream. Separating the water from the liquid phase ensures that the oil is of higher quality and meets the required specifications. Additionally, the separated water can undergo treatment to remove any contaminants before being discharged or recycled.

– Treatment of Other Liquids: In some cases, the well stream may contain other liquid components, such as condensates or natural gas liquids (NGLs). These liquids can be separated and processed separately to obtain valuable products such as propane, butane, and gasoline.

A separator in the oil and gas industry is a vital piece of equipment used to separate a well stream into its gaseous and liquid components. By effectively separating the gas and liquid phases, a separator ensures the production of high-quality oil and gas, improves safety during transportation and storage, and allows for the recovery and utilization of valuable hydrocarbons.