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The truth is that the petrochemical industry will remain the dominant force in the energy sector for the foreseeable future; however, other energy types are slowly becoming more competitive. The oil and gas industries will need to optimize every possible advantage to maintain their respective market shares, and the easiest way to do so is to maximize efficiency at every opportunity, both upstream and downstream.

Key to increasing processing efficiency are electric process heaters, sometimes called immersion heaters. The heating element of electric process heaters is in direct contact with the fluid medium, constituting an immersion heater, and therefore also resulting in minimal waste heat. Additionally, this heating appliance must be highly controllable to prevent damage to the fluid and must also be easily integrated into modern facilities. Meanwhile, facilities that still use burner-style heaters are plagued by an inefficient heat source that is hard to control, obsolete and potentially dangerous.

Heating crude and refined oil is a common challenge, as in almost every application the oil viscosity must be controlled with continuous heat. Thankfully, innovations in electric process heating have yielded adaptable and efficient solutions that meet the needs for all operators, throughout the extraction phase (upstream), as well as the refinement, manufacturing and distribution stages (downstream).

Figure 1. From discovery to end-use, electric process heaters play an integral role in the petrochemical industry.Figure 1. From discovery to end-use, electric process heaters play an integral role in the petrochemical industry.Immersion heaters are an important part of upstream processes and enhanced oil recovery operations. Highly-viscous reservoir fluids are resistant to being pumped from the discovery site to the well surface, but heaters can lower the viscosity of crude oil deposits to improve product yield. When accessing bitumen deposits an immersion heater becomes even more essential, as naturally occurring bitumen is a sticky, tar-like fluid that requires indirect heating. Producers are able to optimize yield by heat treating reservoir fluids prior to well completion, or by treating fracturing fluids before injection. In both of these applications electric process heaters are preferred due to their efficiency and reliability.

Precise temperature control of energized fluids helps mobilize reservoir fluids. Circulation heaters are ideal for pre-heating carbon dioxide prior to injection during the well completion phase. The fluid is circulated around the immersion heater until the desired temperature (up to 1,000⁰ F) is reached. Fracking stages completed with carbon dioxide treatment provide for increased recovery rates.

Immersion heaters serve a key purpose in steam-assisted gas drainage (SAGD). Producers have found success when inserting their immersion heaters into the wellbore prior to well completion. Pretreatment of wellbore fluids prior to SAGD operations serves as an alternative to extended SAGD start-up times and also reduces the amount of steam needed. Producers in Canadian oil sands value these capabilities, as immersion heaters are highly efficient and offer precise control over steam quality, a requirement when completing horizontal wells.

During the extraction process the produced fluids that reach the well pad consist of a mixture of oil, water, gas and condensable vapor. Electric heaters can resist corrosive fluids, improve fluid viscosity and enhance the performance of oil and gas separators. Throughout the entire upstream recovery process, electric immersion heaters are simply invaluable.

This is the end of part 1 on the role of electric immersion heaters in the petrochemical industry. Click here for part 2 (available November 22).