How Does Artificial Lift Work?

Artificial lift is a process used on oil wells to increase pressure within the reservoir and encourage oil to the surface. When the natural drive energy of the reservoir is not strong enough to push the oil to the surface, artificial lift is employed to recover more production.

While some wells contain enough pressure for oil to rise to the surface without stimulation, most don't, requiring artificial lift. In fact, 96% of the oil wells in the US require artificial lift from the very beginning.

Even those wells that initially posses natural flow to the surface, that pressure depletes over time, and artificial lift is then required. Therefore, artificial lift is generally performed on all wells at some time during their production life.

Although there are several methods to achieve artificial lift, the two main categories of artificial lift include pumping systems and gas lifts.

Methods of Artificial Lift

The most common type of artificial lift pump system applied is beam pumping, which engages equipment on and below the surface to increase pressure and push oil to the surface. Consisting of a sucker rod string and a sucker rod pump, beam pumps are the familiar jack pumps seen on onshore oil wells.

Beam Pump
Beam Pump
Source: Calsac Corporation

Above the surface, the beam pumping system rocks back and forth. This is connected to a string of rods called the sucker rods, which plunge down into the wellbore. The sucker rods are connected to the sucker rod pump, which is installed as a part of the tubing string near the bottom of the well. As the beam pumping system rocks back and forth, this operates the rod string, sucker rod and sucker rod pump, which works similarly to pistons inside a cylinder. The sucker rod pump lifts the oil from the reservoir through the well to the surface.

Usually pumping about 20 times a minute, the pumping units are powered electronically or via gas engine, called a prime mover. In order for the beam system to work properly, a speed reducer is employed to ensure the pump unit moves steadily, despite the 600 revolutions per minute the engine achieves.

Another artificial lift pumping system, hydraulic pumping equipment applies a downhole hydraulic pump, rather than sucker rods, which lift oil to the surface. Here, the production is forced against the pistons, causing pressure and the pistons to lift the fluids to the surface. Similar to the physics applied in waterwheels powering old-fashion gristmills, the natural energy within the well is put to work to raise the production to the surface.

Hydraulic Pump
Hydraulic PumpSource: Schlumberger

Hydraulic pumps are generally composed of two pistons, one above the other, which are connected by a rod that moves up and down within the pump. Both the surface hydraulic pumps and subsurface hydraulic pumps are powered by power oil, or clean oil that has been previously lifted from the well. The surface pump sends the power oil through the tubing string to the subsurface hydraulic pump installed at the bottom of the tubing string, the reservoir fluids are then sent up a second parallel tubing string to the surface.

Electric submersible pump systems employ a centrifugal pump below the level of the reservoir fluids. Connected to a long electric motor, the pump is composed of several impellers, or blades, that move the fluids within the well. The whole system is installed at the bottom of the tubing string. An electric cable runs the length of the well, connecting the pump to a surface source of electricity.

Electric Submersible Pump
Electric Submersible PumpSource: Schlumberger

The electric submersible pump applies artificial lift by spinning the impellers on the pump shaft, putting pressure on the surrounding fluids and forcing them to the surface. A mass producer, electric submersible pumps can lift more than 25,000 barrels of fluids per day.

An emerging method of artificial lift, gas lift injects compressed gas into the well to reestablish pressure, making it produce. Even when a well is flowing without artificial lift, it many times is using a natural form of gas lift.

The injected gas reduces the pressure on the bottom of the well by decreasing the viscosity of the fluids in the well. This, in turn, encourages the fluids to flow more easily to the surface. Typically, the gas that is injected is recycled gas produced from the well.

With very few surface units, gas lift is the optimal choice for offshore applications. Occurring downhole, the compressed gas is injected down the casing tubing annulus, entering the well at numerous entry points called gas-lift valves. As the gas enters the tubing at these different stages, it forms bubbles, lightens the fluids and lowers the pressure.

In the US, the majority of wells, 82%, employ a beam pump. Ten percent use gas lift, 4% use electric submersible pumps, and 2% use hydraulic pumps.


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