Battered but Unbowed: Those Thermsol Guys

Abstract: Despite pitch after pitch to operators of all sizes, a Houston-area company can't seem to convince potential buyers that it can eliminate their paraffin problems for good.

Analysis: Marvin Parker and Bob Langston are frustrated, really frustrated. But they're far from beaten.

The two, both former Air Force pilots who went on to lengthy careers in the petroleum industry, are principals in Thermsol Inc. (TI), Spring, TX, near Houston. It's a company with a mission they planned carefully for years, but which today still hasn't quite gotten off the ground. They keep getting "shot down" in their resolute attack on one of the fattest targets in the oilpatch: flow assurance.

More accurately, TI is going after the elimination of problems associated with paraffin, asphaltenes, and other waxy hydrocarbon constituents which, if allowed to move out of the liquid phase and left untreated, can impede oil production to the point of clogging everything inside of which the oil moves--from the pay zone all the way to the refinery. In fact, they've got a "precision bomb" of a sort that they claim can take out paraffin once and for all.

And if you don't think paraffin and the like are a problem, the literature is full of stories about once-prolific wells and even entire fields around the world that are shut in or abandoned today due to paraffinic deposition and plugging.

Trouble is, nobody has yet given TI's paraffin elimination technology a try, not even for free. Both Parker and Langston can tick off scores of pitches they've made that came to naught.

Paraffin deposition results from cooling of a paraffinic crude oil and subsequent flocculation of its high-molecular-weight hydrocarbons during transit from the reservoir to the surface. Deposition occurs when the oil temperature drops below the "cloud point"--the point at which the contained waxes begin to congeal as the oil nears the surface. Though oil temperatures usually don't drop to the "pour point"--when it becomes a solid (except in cold regions or during winter weather)--the lower temperatures up-hole often result in the waxy stuff coating everything from the producing formation to the perforations to the production tubing to the wellhead, flowline, and surface facilities.

"Paraffin deposition has been a problem since the industry began," says Parker. "It was kicked around in technical literature as early as the late 1800s. But to date, more than a century later, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in treating wax deposition, yet it's still a major problem."

There are other ways to mitigate, but not eliminate, waxy deposits, they point out. These fall into three basic categories:

  • Mechanical: Includes scouring production tubing with wireline scrapers, using gas-lift plunger systems, attaching scrapers to pump sucker rods, and even running "magnetic" fluid conditioners.
  • Chemical: Includes introducing solvents, wax crystal modifiers, dispersants, and detergents into the wellstream.
  • Thermal: Pumping hot oil downhole to clean the pay zone, perforations, tubing, and flow lines (the most often-used method, but which can damage the formation, resulting in production decline), and heating hydraulic fluids to keep downhole production components heated to above the cloud point.

But TI principals believe they have a superior alternative to any of these. The company owns a patented process, Thermsol(SM), that they say totally eliminates wax-based deposition all the way through the production cycle by isolating waxy ends and preventing them from coming out of solution. Once brought to the surface, the waxes can be filtered out of the wellstream or, in storage, will fall to the bottom of the tank. They describe the process result as "micro-encapsulation" of the waxes.

For starters, say the two, using Thermsol will cut well operating costs by at least 25 percent. There's no need for hot oiling or production shutdowns for other treatment alternatives. Also, Thermsol helps boost production (by 25 percent or more, says TI), thus extending the well's or the field's productive life. But there's even more. Since the waxy ends can be separated anywhere along the production stream, if held out at the well or field level they could be sold by the operating company itself, creating additional revenue.

There are myriad frustration points so far in the TI saga, says Parker, a retired petroleum engineer with more than 30 years' experience in E&P operations for major and independent operating companies. But the most exasperating one, he says, is that despite the industry's all-too-familiar and widespread proclamation that "flow assurance" is one of its most important issues, individual producers seem unwilling to try new technology aimed at doing just that. The offshore segment of the industry, he observed, is highly vocal about its commitment to finding ways to assure flow, particularly in deepwater production systems, most of which are on the sea bottom and can't be reached easily mechanically. Currently, some operators require manufacturers to build electric heating systems into their subsea equipment to head off paraffin/asphaltene buildup and to mitigate formation of hydrates inside well stream valving and pipes. They also inject chemicals and conduct hot oiling or, if the hings get bad, intervene with coiled tubing systems, and sometimes are forced to replace subsea valves and entire flow line systems. All very expensive. But companies still aren't beating a path to get a look at TI's process. And Parker and Langston are at a loss as to exactly why, since they've tried every way from Tuesday to get one of them to try Thermsol at no up-front cost (and that may hold a clue to the reason why they don't, but we'll get back to that later).

According to Parker, Thermsol's production technology irreversibly reduces the pour point of produced crude oil and keeps heavy organic compounds like paraffin in a separate phase (micro-encapsulated)--as long as the oil is kept above this new pour point. Though proprietary, the process involves compressing and heating natural gas and gas liquids before pumping them downhole to the perforations opposite the producing formation.

It also requires some added skid-mounted modular equipment at the wellsite, said Parker, and some downhole equipment that can be added when the well is shut down for workover--an oft-repeated task where waxy crudes are involved. But TI is more than willing to wait for that point if an operator will sign a contract.

Parker holds the patent to the Thermsol process. Langston, a partner, who heads up a LaPorte, TX, environmental services company specializing in refining and petrochemical process operations, also helps market Thermsol, both in upstream and downstream operations.

"With producers, we think the problem may be that on the field superintendent level, folks don't really recognize they have a problem," said Parker. "They have a hot oiling schedule and a solvent schedule and a well servicing schedule, and as long as they keep to it, they don't believe paraffin, etc., is a problem."

But over the long term, he said, it is. For instance, lengthy periods of hot oiling, he explained, can--and often does--cause waxes to set up inside the producing formation itself, further gumming up an already gooey situation. Other mitigation methods also add to the problem in the long term, he said.

"Also, middle managers often rely on their field people to tell them everything's okay," said Langston. "But some middle managers are reticent to try anything new. They're told by their bosses to hold costs down, so they stifle their interest in new technology, or simply won't consider it."

Parker agrees. "And in many cases, paraffin mitigation and other flow assurance measures aren't included in overall lifting costs, so upper managers don't often consider it as a way to cut operating expenses. We try to inform them, but again, it seems as if nobody wants to make waves."

TI offers to take a producer's "worst case" paraffin plugging problem and to install Thermsol for the cost of equipment and installation. They ask only for a well or group of wells that aren't in the "stripper" stage, producing 15 barrels per day or less. Gas and gas liquids must be present, either in the oil itself or by introduction from the surface. They believe the result will be significantly reduced well servicing costs and a subsequent production increase.

"In the end, we want to be 'partners' with our customers," said Langston. "We want to be rewarded only from that percentage of increased production that results from using Thermsol."

That, as mentioned earlier, may be part of the problem. This "on the come" approach may seem fair to those who offer it, and a lot of small companies attempt to do so, but operators may sometimes see it differently. Tacking on a new production-sharing interest can create legal problems, for instance. And in older U.S. fields, there are often hundreds of other working-interest owners. That sometimes creates a thorny accounting chore, among other operator concerns.

"But major companies and a lot of large independents are involved in production-sharing agreements elsewhere around the world," Parker observes. "They know how PSAs work, and it would seem they'd be willing to enter one back here in the States."

Maybe. In any case, TI has so far had no takers. So, they've gone overseas, too. Parker said national oil companies in several Latin American countries are considering Thermsol demonstration tests in the near future.

"We really hate to go overseas with this thing," said Langston, "but we obviously want this company to prosper. We've tried our best, under the limitations of our size, to show U.S. producers how this process works. But because there's this significant hesitancy to try new products here in the U.S., we've had to move our marketing thrust overseas. It's really a shame."

For more information on Thermsol Inc., see their website at Parker can be contacted by phone at (281) 355-9248. Langston's phone is (281) 478-5800, ext. 111.