Oil and Gas Processes Are Instrumental

Feb. 25, 2014
The oil and gas industry makes up a quarter of the revenue in process field instrumentation. Shale is a particularly hot sector, presenting challenges for instrument suppliers.

Worth about $11 billion globally in 2013, the market for process field instrumentation devices—measuring flow, level, temperature and pressure—is highly dependent on the oil and gas industry. The overall market is forecast to see a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.7 percent from 2013 to 2017, with about a quarter of those revenues coming from oil and gas in 2013.

The sector is very process-intensive, with many applications in extraction, separation, treatment, environmental monitoring and distribution requiring process measurement technologies. It is within this industry that the most opportunities for process instrumentation vendors are expected in the short term.

As it has for many sectors of North America’s economy, the advent of shale oil and gas has proved a particular boon for process instrumentation suppliers. Extracting hydrocarbons out of shale typically requires high-pressure pumps and therefore advanced instrumentation. One example is a contact-radar level-measurement device, suitable when there is a liquid-liquid interface, and often used when measuring the extracted liquid and ensuring no oil is disregarded alongside the contaminated water.

In addition to North America, shale gas sources have been identified in China, Argentina, South Africa, Australia and throughout Europe. Private-property rights allow quick exploitation of the resource in the U.S., but Europeans have not been able to overcome political and environmental concerns. However, a recent announcement in the UK by Public Health England (PHE) suggests that shale gas extraction emissions have a low risk to public health. Oil and gas giants Total and Cuadrilla have followed this by announcing plans to invest in the UK, which, if successful, will go some way to reducing concern over fracking through Europe.

Technical developments

One of the challenges facing process instrumentation suppliers will be to make products that can be used in the shale environment. The nature of the extracted liquid (part water, part oil) requires multiphase measurement. Many automation vendors are undertaking R&D to come up with a technology that can measure multiple phases of flow using minimal separation stages. Differential pressure (DP) flowmeters are being used after a separation process, but Coriolis flowmeters, which have dual-phase measuring, are becoming increasingly common. However, a problem arises where there is entrained gas.

Coriolis flowmeters have the added advantage of being cheaper to recalibrate and maintain because of their lack of moving parts. A much more likely scenario is that as technology and manufacturing techniques improve, the cost of multiphase measuring solutions will become cheaper and more accurate. Accuracy will be an essential requirement as extraction starts to occur in deeper wells, where the fluid is increasingly mixed with other substances and also subject to high pressures.

Continuous data collection

Within a process plant, there is an ever-growing demand for data collection, but especially that which can then be translated into actionable operator instructions. With the installation of pressure, temperature, flow and level instruments, a multitude of data points and processes are continuously monitored. Whether installed for health or safety reasons, or in pursuit of reduced downtime, these technologies must get beyond presenting ambiguous data of questionable relevancy.

The oil and gas environment is a highly hazardous environment. As such, there is a particular necessity for constant monitoring of substances and processes, as well as equipment, due to various restrictions imposed (internal and external). The monitoring of remote worksites can help with data management, while providing online access to real-time information.

What next?

The oil and gas industry, and in particular the development of shale gas exploration and extraction, currently offers the greatest opportunities for growth within the process instrumentation sector. The relative complexity of extracting the liquid and the need for accurate measurements means that vendors can market more sophisticated solutions such as Coriolis flowmeters, radar level measurement devices and multi-variable pressure transmitters. Older technologies such as DP products can be used, but there is a distinct advantage in using newer technologies in terms of maintenance and accuracy.

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