Wednesday, 16 November 2011

NGL (Natural Gas Liquids) Extraction

There are two principle techniques for removing NGLs from the natural gas stream: the absorption method and the cryogenic expander process. According to the Gas Processors Association, these two processes account for around 90 percent of total natural gas liquids production.

The Absorption Method 
The absorption method of NGL extraction is very similar to using absorption for dehydration. The main difference is that, in NGL absorption, an absorbing oil is used as opposed to glycol. This absorbing oil has an 'affinity' for NGLs in much the same manner as glycol has an affinity for water. Before the oil has picked up any NGLs, it is termed 'lean' absorption oil. As the natural gas is passed through an absorption tower, it is brought into contact with the absorption oil which soaks up a high proportion of the NGLs. The 'rich' absorption oil, now containing NGLs, exits the absorption tower through the bottom. It is now a mixture of absorption oil, propane, butanes, pentanes, and other heavier hydrocarbons. The rich oil is fed into lean oil stills, where the mixture is heated to a temperature above the boiling point of the NGLs, but below that of the oil. This process allows for the recovery of around 75 percent of butanes, and 85 - 90 percent of pentanes and heavier molecules from the natural gas stream.
The basic absorption process above can be modified to improve its effectiveness, or to target the extraction of specific NGLs. In the refrigerated oil absorption method, where the lean oil is cooled through refrigeration, propane recovery can be upwards of 90 percent, and around 40 percent of ethane can be extracted from the natural gas stream. Extraction of the other, heavier NGLs can be close to 100 percent using this process.

The Cryogenic Expansion Process.
Cryogenic processes are also used to extract NGLs from natural gas. While absorption methods can extract almost all of the heavier NGLs, the lighter hydrocarbons, such as ethane, are often more difficult to recover from the natural gas stream. In certain instances, it is economic to simply leave the lighter NGLs in the natural gas stream. However, if it is economic to extract ethane and other lighter hydrocarbons, cryogenic processes are required for high recovery rates. Essentially, cryogenic processes consist of dropping the temperature of the gas stream to around -120 degrees Fahrenheit.
There are a number of different ways of chilling the gas to these temperatures, but one of the most effective is known as the turbo expander process. In this process, external refrigerants are used to cool the natural gas stream. Then, an expansion turbine is used to rapidly expand the chilled gases, which causes the temperature to drop significantly. This rapid temperature drop condenses ethane and other hydrocarbons in the gas stream, while maintaining methane in gaseous form. This process allows for the recovery of about 90 to 95 percent of the ethane originally in the gas stream. In addition, the expansion turbine is able to convert some of the energy released when the natural gas stream is expanded into recompressing the gaseous methane effluent, thus saving energy costs associated with extracting ethane.
The extraction of NGLs from the natural gas stream produces both cleaner, purer natural gas, as well as the valuable hydrocarbons that are the NGLs themselves.
Natural Gas Liquid Fractionation
Once NGLs have been removed from the natural gas stream, they must be broken down into their base components to be useful. That is, the mixed stream of different NGLs must be separated out. The process used to accomplish this task is called fractionation. Fractionation works based on the different boiling points of the different hydrocarbons in the NGL stream. Essentially, fractionation occurs in stages consisting of the boiling off of hydrocarbons one by one. The name of a particular fractionator gives an idea as to its purpose, as it is conventionally named for the hydrocarbon that is boiled off. The entire fractionation process is broken down into steps, starting with the removal of the lighter NGLs from the stream. The particular fractionators are used in the following order:
• Deethanizer - this step separates the ethane from the NGL stream.
• Depropanizer - the next step separates the propane.
• Debutanizer - this step boils off the butanes, leaving the pentanes and heavier hydrocarbons in the NGL stream.
• Butane Splitter or Deisobutanizer - this step separates the iso and normal butanes.
By proceeding from the lightest hydrocarbons to the heaviest, it is possible to separate the different NGLs reasonably easily.

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