News Article

Shaping the Future of E&P Operations: Electrifying the Wellhead with Sapphire Technologies' FreeSpin® In-line Turboexpander

April 9, 2024

Turboexpander-generators have emerged as a reliable and emission-free method for generating clean electricity from pressure letdown processes. One such use case occurs throughout the natural gas distribution network, where pressure is reduced in pressure letdown (PLD) stations. Leading midstream operators have already adopted Sapphire Technologies’ turboexpander technology to decarbonize pipelines.

Now, Sapphire Technologies is adapting the FreeSpin® Turboexpander Generator (FIT) solution for high pressure applications to help upstream E&P companies electrify the wellhead. By electrifying the wellhead, E&P operators can eliminate the need to utilize heavy-emission power sources like diesel generators which emit nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, particulate matter and sulfur. The adaptation of the FIT for high pressure applications is a significant evolution of conventional turboexpander generators and represents a first-of-its-kind energy solution for wellheads.

Why does this matter?

With an estimated 44.6K new wellheads drilled in 2023, according to World Oil, there is a significant need to decarbonize conventional energy assets. Because turboexpanders can be retrofitted to existing onshore and offshore wells, they represent a substantial opportunity to decarbonize existing energy assets today. Turboexpanders can reduce the utilization of engines and gas turbines and thereby reduce production emissions. The power produced by turboexpanders can also be used to operate electrically-actuated valves at the wellpad, enabling the replacement of methane-actuated valves and eliminating their greenhouse gas footprint. 

Installation of the FreeSpin® turboexpander at wellheads has the potential to eliminate the need for diesel power at remote wellheads. Diesel power is a high NOx and SOx fuel, while electricity generated by the FreeSpin® turboexpander is emission-free because the FIT leverages pressure to produce electricity with no combustion, which means there are no CO2, NOx or SOx emissions.

Moving Forward with Upstream Partners

Last year, we launched two new partnerships and delivered two wellhead units, including our partnership with CNX Resources to introduce the FIT and create a first-of-its-kind clean energy process at the wellhead at a site in Appalachia.

How did Sapphire Technologies Adapt the FIT to be compatible with the wellhead?

Our pilot project in Japan is at an LNG regassification facility. LNG is the cleanest form of Natural Gas. Before liquifying natural gas, all the impurities must be removed, dried (water removed) and heavier hydrocarbons stripped out. Following the pilot project, we expanded our fleet with units in midstream. Natural Gas in midstream applications typically has a broader chemical composition compared to LNG but is still relatively dry and pure. Wellhead opportunities bring several challenges that may be present individually or in combination. Midstream applications typically run at pressure up to 110 atmospheres (1600 psi) whereas wellhead applications run at twice that pressure or more. As the gas comes out of the ground at the wellhead there are often impurities, such as hydrogen-sulfide present in the gas. The composition of the gas is broader with heavier hydrocarbons and water likely present. The presence of water requires development of waterproof technology while the heavier hydrocarbons can lead to liquid droplets that require development of technologies to resist erosion.

For our first deployment into Wellhead applications, we tackled one of the biggest challenges by developing technology to make the FIT resilient to water vapor and liquid water dropout.

Future developments include adapting the system to operate at significantly higher pressures. We will adapt the FIT to 3,000 psig. By adapting the FIT to work at higher pressures, we will also ensure our system is fuel-flexible and will be able to work with future fuels like hydrogen, and in future applications like carbon dioxide pipelines.  

To suit conditions at the wellhead, the FIT also needs to handle particulates and liquids, as well as impurities such as hydrogen sulfide. To solve these challenges, we are developing proprietary technology to resist the corrosive effects of hydrogen sulfide and other technologies to resist the erosive effects of liquids from water and heavier hydrocarbons.

In 2024, we’ll be expanding these partnerships – stay tuned for updates!