Natural-gas processing is a range of industrial processes designed to purify raw natural gas by removing impurities, contaminants and higher molecular mass hydrocarbons to produce what is known as pipeline quality dry natural gas. Natural gas has to be processed in order to prepare it for final use and ensure that elimination of contaminants.
Natural-gas processing starts underground or at the well-head. If the gas is being produced, for instance, alongside crude oil, the separation process already transpires as the fluid flows through the reservoir rocks until it reaches the well tubing. The process beginning at the wellhead extracts the composition of natural gas according to the type, depth, and location of the underground deposit and the geology of the area. Oil and natural gas are often found together in the same reservoir. The natural gas produced from oil wells is generally classified as associated-dissolved gas meaning that the gas had been associated with or dissolved in crude oil. Natural gas production not associated with crude oil is classified as “non-associated.” In 2009, 89 percent of U.S. wellhead production of natural gas was non-associated. Non-associated gas that produce a dry gas in terms of condensate and water are sent directly to a pipeline or gas plant without undergoing any separation process.
Natural-gas processing plants purify raw natural gas by removing contaminants such as solids, water, carbon dioxide (CO2), hydrogen sulfide (H2S), mercury and higher molecular mass hydrocarbons. Some of the substances which contaminate natural gas have economic value and are further processed or sold. An operational natural gas plant delivers pipeline-quality dry natural gas that can be used as fuel by residential, commercial and industrial consumers, or as a feedstock for chemical synthesis.
Raw natural gas comes primarily from any one of three types of wells: crude oil wells, gas wells, and condensate wells.
Natural gas that comes from crude oil wells is typically called associated gas. This gas can have existed as a gas cap above the crude oil in the underground reservoir or could have been dissolved in the crude oil, coming out of solution as the pressure is reduced during production.
Natural gas that comes from gas wells and condensate wells, in which there is little or no crude oil, is called non-associated gas. Gas wells typically produce only raw natural gas, while condensate wells produce raw natural gas along with other low molecular weight hydrocarbons. Those that are liquid at ambient conditions (i.e., pentane and heavier) are called natural-gas condensate (sometimes also called natural gasoline or simply condensate).
Natural gas is called sweet gas when relatively free of hydrogen sulfide; gas that does contain hydrogen sulfide is called sour gas. Natural gas, or any other gas mixture, containing significant quantities of hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide or similar acidic gases, is called acid gas.
Raw natural gas can also come from methane deposits in the pores of coal seams, often existing underground in a more concentrated state of adsorption onto the surface of the coal itself. Such gas is referred to as coalbed gas or coalbed methane (coal seam gas in Australia). Coalbed gas has become an important source of energy in recent decades.
See also: Natural-gas condensate
Raw natural gas typically consists primarily of methane (CH4) and ethane (C2H6), the shortest and lightest hydrocarbon molecules. It often also contains varying amounts of:
The raw natural gas must be purified to meet the quality standards specified by the major pipeline transmission and distribution companies. Those quality standards vary from pipeline to pipeline and are usually a function of a pipeline system's design and the markets that it serves. In general, the standards specify that the natural gas:
|Hydrocarbon dewpoint||30 °F (–1.1 °C)||35 °F (1.7 °C)||40 °F (4.4 °C)||45 °F (7.2 °C)||50 °F (10 °C)|
The natural gas should:
There are a variety of ways in which to configure the various unit processes used in the treatment of raw natural gas. The block flow diagram below is a generalized, typical configuration for the processing of raw natural gas from non-associated gas wells. It shows how raw natural gas is processed into sales gas piped to the end user markets. It also shows how processing of the raw natural gas yields these byproducts:
Raw natural gas is commonly collected from a group of adjacent wells and is first processed in a separator vessels at that collection point for removal of free liquid water and natural gas condensate. The condensate is usually then transported to an oil refinery and the water is treated and disposed of as wastewater.
The raw gas is then piped to a gas processing plant where the initial purification is usually the removal of acid gases (hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide). There are several processes available for that purpose as shown in the flow diagram, but amine treating is the process that was historically used. However, due to a range of performance and environmental constraints of the amine process, a newer technology based on the use of polymeric membranes to separate the carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide from the natural gas stream has gained increasing acceptance. Membranes are attractive since no reagents are consumed.
The acid gases, if present, are removed by membrane or amine treating and can then be routed into a sulfur recovery unit which converts the hydrogen sulfide in the acid gas into either elemental sulfur or sulfuric acid. Of the processes available for these conversions, the Claus process is by far the most well known for recovering elemental sulfur, whereas the conventional Contact process and the WSA (Wet sulfuric acid process) are the most used technologies for recovering sulfuric acid. Smaller quantities of acid gas may be disposed of by flaring.
The residual gas from the Claus process is commonly called tail gas and that gas is then processed in a tail gas treating unit (TGTU) to recover and recycle residual sulfur-containing compounds back into the Claus unit. Again, as shown in the flow diagram, there are a number of processes available for treating the Claus unit tail gas and for that purpose a WSA process is also very suitable since it can work autothermally on tail gases.
The next step in the gas processing plant is to remove water vapor from the gas using either the regenerable absorption in liquid triethylene glycol (TEG), commonly referred to as glycol dehydration, deliquescent chloride desiccants, and or a Pressure Swing Adsorption (PSA) unit which is regenerable adsorption using a solid adsorbent. Other newer processes like membranes may also be considered.
Mercury is then removed by using adsorption processes (as shown in the flow diagram) such as activated carbon or regenerable molecular sieves.
Although not common, nitrogen is sometimes removed and rejected using one of the three processes indicated on the flow diagram:
The NGL fractionation process treats offgas from the separators at an oil terminal or the overhead fraction from a crude distillation column in a refinery. Fractionation aims to produce useful products including natural gas suitable for piping to industrial and domestic consumers; liquefied petroleum gases (Propane and Butane) for sale; and gasoline feedstock for liquid fuel blending. The recovered NGL stream is processed through a fractionation train consisting of up to five distillation towers in series: a demethanizer, a deethanizer, a depropanizer, a debutanizer and a butane splitter. It uses another cryogenic low temperature distillation process involving expansion of the gas through a turbo-expander followed by distillation in a demethanizing fractionating column. Some gas processing plants use lean oil absorption process rather than the cryogenic turbo-expander process.
The gaseous feed to the NGL fractionation plant is typically compressed to about 60 barg and 37 °C. The feed is cooled to -22 °C, by exchange with the demethanizer overhead product and by a refrigeration system and is split into three streams:
The overhead product is mainly methane at 20 bar and -98 °C. This is heated and compressed to yield a sales gas at 20 bar and 40 °C. The bottom product is NGL at 20 barg which is fed to the deethanizer.
The overhead product from the deethanizer is ethane and the bottoms are fed to the depropanizer. The overhead product from the depropanizer is propane and the bottoms are fed to the debutanizer. The overhead product from the debutanizer is a mixture of normal and iso-butane, and the bottoms product is a C5+ gasoline mixture.
The operating conditions of the vessels in the NGL fractionation train are typically as follows.
|Feed pressure||60 barg||30 barg|
|Feed temperature||37 °C||25 °C||37 °C||125 °C||59 °C|
|Column operating pressure||20 barg||26-30 barg||10-16.2 barg||3.8-17 barg||4.9-7 barg|
|Overhead product temperature||-98°C||50 °C||59 °C||49 °C|
|Bottom product temperature||12 °C||37 °C||125 °C||118 °C||67 °C|
|Overhead product||Methane (natural gas)||Ethane||Propane||Butane||Isobutane|
|Bottom product||Natural gas liquids||(Depropanizer feed)||(Debutanizer feed)||Gasoline||Normal Butane|
A typical composition of the feed and product is as follows.
The recovered streams of propane, butanes and C5+ may be "sweetened" in a Merox process unit to convert undesirable mercaptans into disulfides and, along with the recovered ethane, are the final NGL by-products from the gas processing plant. Currently, most cryogenic plants do not include fractionation for economic reasons, and the NGL stream is instead transported as a mixed product to standalone fractionation complexes located near refineries or chemical plants that use the components for feedstock. In case laying pipeline is not possible for geographical reason, or the distance between source and consumer exceed 3000 km, natural gas is then transported by ship as LNG (liquefied natural gas) and again converted into its gaseous state in the vicinity of the consumer.
The residue gas from the NGL recovery section is the final, purified sales gas which is pipelined to the end-user markets. Rules and agreements are made between buyer and seller regarding the quality of the gas. These usually specify the maximum allowable concentration of CO2, H2S and H2O as well as requiring the gas to be commercially free from objectionable odours and materials, and dust or other solid or liquid matter, waxes, gums and gum forming constituents, which might damage or adversely affect operation of the buyers equipment. When an upset occurs on the treatment plant buyers can usually refuse to accept the gas, lower the flow rate or re-negotiate the price.
If the gas has significant helium content, the helium may be recovered by fractional distillation. Natural gas may contain as much as 7% helium, and is the commercial source of the noble gas. For instance, the Hugoton Gas Field in Kansas and Oklahoma in the United States contains concentrations of helium from 0.3% to 1.9%, which is separated out as a valuable byproduct.
Natural gas consumption patterns, across nations, vary based on access. Countries with large reserves tend to handle the raw-material natural gas more generously, while countries with scarce or lacking resources tend to be more economical. Despite the considerable findings, the predicted availability of the natural-gas reserves has hardly changed.
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