Q&A: Not All Separators are Equal

Published on April 5, 2023

Explore the future of sand separation technology and learn about what makes Sandtinel sand separators different in this Q&A with Chris Johnston, Lead CFD Researcher at Sandtinel.

Question: What are the different types of sand separation technology currently available today?

Chris: There are several different kinds of sand separators out there. Traditionally the options have been an upright vertical cyclonic separator, a horizontal desander, a spherical baffle type separator, or a filter-based separator.

For the most part, these separators have been plagued with issues. Cyclonics turndown at low flow rates. Horizontal separators are a huge hassle to try to clean out. Baffle-type spheres have low storage capacity. These separators are less efficient than we would want producers to see, and are below the threshold of what we think the modern flowback environment demands.

When you use low efficiency sand separators you will require multiple units to try to capture the remainder which leads to problems of its own, like a very high back pressure on the well which reduces overall production.

Question: What makes Sandtinel technology different?

Chris: Sandtinel separators are unlike any you’ve seen before. They have the highest separation efficiency of any mechanical separator on the market. We target a minimum of 95% sand removal at a sand size of 100 mesh and larger – and we can prove it.

It’s common for our customers to remove all measurable sand from their lines, especially because Sandtinel separators do not experience turndown at low flow rates. They have a broad operating curve which allows them to defend your well across its entire lifespan. The units are simple to use and take only minutes to dump. They are safe, reliable, and see virtually no internal erosion or wear because of our Vapor Lock Technology.

"We’ve never had to take a unit out of service due to wear on the internals, which is a testament to both the technology and to our routine NDT program."

Question: How does the VL-TEK™ Vapor Lock Technology work?

Chris: The Vapor Lock Technology inside of a Sandtinel temporarily breaks apart a high velocity multiphase flow so that the gas can be segregated from the rest of the fluid. We’ve found that the gas phase is typically the main driver of the velocity of the flow – often 95% to 99% or more of the superficial velocity of the flow is due to the gas. But it’s typically the remaining 1% to 5% of the liquid which is carrying the sand in it as a slurry. By isolating and temporarily separating the gas from the system, we can slow the flow down and remove the sand very effectively from the liquid phase. The flow recombines at the outlet of the vessel so that from the outside, there is no interruption or change to your processes. We knock the sand into the bottom of the sphere, where the Sand Lock technology traps it prior to periodic dumping.

Question: There’s a lot of talk about how technology is essential to working towards emissions reduction. How does Sandtinel technology help?

Chris: Substantially reducing emissions requires a multi-pronged approach tackling many different parts of the problem. From the perspective of sand separation, what we’re usually talking about is the fugitive emissions released from the sand separator when it’s being dumped. When you’re dumping a large volume of sand slurry, you’re going to get some amount of gas and oil coming out at the same time. If you’re dumping to an open-top tank, as is pretty typical, then that gas is going to be released into the atmosphere. One of the benefits of the Vapor Lock design is that because we are isolating the gas away from the liquid, there is very little agitation of gas into the bottom of the vessel. We’ve estimated some pretty huge reduction in fugitive emissions compared to current technology like cyclones which depend on that agitation to achieve sand removal.

Question: The safety of the environment and people are a priority onsite. How are Sandtinel separators safer than other sand separation technology on the market?

Chris: The main benefit Sandtinel offers is avoiding exposure for operators by providing remote or automated dumping options. Sandtinel separators do not need to be opened up and cleaned out, serviced, or have elements changed out while in the field. They don’t contain sacrificial elements, interchangeable inserts, or filter mechanisms to clean. Instead, operating the unit is as simple as turning the valve at the bottom drain for a minute or two for each dump, not only saving the operator time during their day and reducing the downtime on the well, but also keeping them out of the red zone for longer. Our automated dump solution, the Sandtinel Dispatcher, is a single or multi-well autodump skid package that operates the separators remotely or on a timed basis. We take safety seriously and are always looking for ways to create smarter and safer technology to tackle new challenges in sand removal.

Question: What are some of the challenges that operators are facing in the field?

Chris: We’ve found that the modern flowback environment is becoming more challenging for sand removal and more demanding. There has definitely been a change in mindset to open wells as aggressively as possible, and operators and producers want sand separators that can keep up. If you need to throttle your well just to go through your sand separator, then that starts to become a business decision about how much erosion you can tolerate without a sand separator to maximize your production. Fundamentally, we don’t want a sand separator to be holding you back from getting the most you can out of your well.

Aside from that, we’ve also seen some shifts in mindsets in the last few years for the kind of sand which is being used, moving from the best possible frac sand to sand that can be easily sourced. A lot of this is sand that breaks down more easily (e.g. not resin coated). So the push has been for sand separators that can handle more of the small stuff, the fines, and which can do it at higher flow rates, higher gas rates, and tougher conditions. We believe the Sandtinel is the best overall solution for those needs.

Question: What kind of operation would benefit from using a Sandtinel separator?

Chris: Sandtinel separators have been used on a wide variety of operations, from initial drill-outs, all the way through to long-term production. We have a pretty wide fleet of equipment for different needs, including 10K spheres for high pressure operations, our G4 Maverick series for trouble wells, and our 96” Generals for group well applications. Our main goal is to make sure you have the right sand separator for the job. We never want you to have a sand separator you don’t need, and we always want to make sure the unit is providing value while it’s out on the job. We believe that data is king, and that collecting as much information from the field as possible will ensure you can make the operational decisions you need to use our equipment effectively.

Question: It’s not a secret that Sandtinel separators cost more than some other separators. Can you speak to the value of a Sandtinel?

Chris: Sandtinel spheres can cost more up-front, but customers are paying for over 10 years of experience and game-changing technology which not only replaces multiple pieces of existing equipment, but surpasses them. If you’re using traditional cyclonic separators, it doesn’t matter how many of them you put in a row off your well – you’re never going to be able to achieve the same level of efficiency you would get with a single Sandtinel. We’ve always tried to look at the big picture when it comes to the cost of equipment – the cost of not using a sand separator in damage to valves and chargeback; the cost of downtime and operator time when cleaning out equipment; the cost of lost production due to the high back pressure across a hydrocyclone. Sandtinel’s vortex separators are the top of the line when it comes to sand removal, and we have found that their substantial benefits pay for themselves many times over in protecting your well.

"If you’re using traditional cyclonic separators, it doesn’t matter how many of them you put in a row off your well – you’re never going to be able to achieve the same level of efficiency you would get with a single Sandtinel."

Question: As needs continue to evolve, what is Sandtinel doing to keep up and stay on the cutting edge of technology?

Chris: We have an R&D center of excellence which continuously works to develop new solutions to meet customer needs, like our automated Sandtinel Dispatcher. At the same time, we’re working on other cleaner, greener, smarter, and safer solutions to the problems we hear about every day. We support our equipment in the field with industry-leading fluid dynamics modeling, and are constantly working on new products to meet the challenges operators face.

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