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Elastomers for PCP systems
In downhole applications, most progressive cavity (PC) pump failures involve the stator elastomer and often result from chemical or physical elastomer breakdown induced by the wellbore environment.
The environment can vary considerably between different reservoirs and individual operations:
- The bottomhole temperature may range from 15 to 200°C [60 to 360°F]
- The well may be pumped off or have a high bottomhole pressure
- The produced fluids may contain solids (e.g., sand, coal fines), gases (e.g., CH4, CO2, H2S), and a wide range of other constituents, including:
Additionally, the methods and fluids used to drill, treat, and stimulate wells introduce a variety of other chemicals into the wellbore, such as:
- Drilling muds
- Completion fluids (heavy salt solutions)
- Treatment fluids (e.g., diluents, hot oil, strong acids)
- Corrosion inhibitors (e.g., amines)
- Flooding materials (e.g., CO2)
Successful use of PC pumps, particularly in the more severe downhole environments, requires proper elastomer selection and appropriate pump sizing and operation. PC pump manufacturers continue to develop and test new elastomers; over time, these efforts have resulted in performance improvements and an expanded range of practical applications. Despite this success, the elastomer component still continues to impose severe restrictions on PC pump use, especially in applications with lighter oils or higher temperatures.
Mechanical and chemical properties
The performance of an elastomer in a PCP application depends heavily on its mechanical and chemical properties. Although many different mechanical properties can be quantified for elastomers, only a few are highly relevant to PC pump performance. One important property is hardness because it characterizes the relationship between the rotor/stator interference fit and the resulting sealing force. Tear strength is also important because it provides a measure of an elastomer’s resistance to tearing and indicates its fatigue and abrasion resistance. Although abrasion resistance is a critical parameter in many applications, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) abrasion tests (drum, tabor, pico) do not represent the PC pump wear mode and should be interpreted with caution. Dynamic properties, which characterize the hysteretic heat buildup behavior, are not overly critical in PC pumps because the flexing frequencies of the single-lobe geometries are generally not high enough to result in significant temperature rise, except when the fit is very tight or heat removal is minimal. Although tensile strength and elongation are commonly referenced properties, they have little practical relevance to PC pumps other than their relationship to other mechanical properties because the elastomer is strained to only a fraction of its capacity. Table 2 summarizes the most commonly referenced mechanical properties, along with any corresponding ASTM and Deutsches Institut für Normung - German institute for standardization (DIN) test references. The range of values typical of commercially available PC pump elastomers is included to show the variations that exist in these properties.
Chemical resistance is normally evaluated through compatibility testing with the fluids in question. Elastomer samples are exposed to the fluid in an autoclave environment for a predetermined period of time (typically 72 or 168 hours); then, the volume and mass change are measured. To be representative, these tests should also assess the change in mechanical properties through measurements of hardness and, if possible, tensile strength and elongation. Because these tests are performed on small samples (which seldom come from actual pumps) for a limited period of time, they are most useful for ranking elastomers as opposed to determining the actual swell level within a stator.
The chemical and mechanical properties of an elastomer are very sensitive to temperature, and the nature of changes in these properties can vary dramatically between elastomers. Although testing is normally done at room temperature, in most cases the mechanical properties will deteriorate significantly with increasing temperature. The rate of fluid swell will also increase at higher temperatures, although in most cases the ultimate level of swell will remain the same. Whenever possible, any testing to evaluate elastomers should be done as close to the anticipated downhole conditions as practical.
PC pump elastomers
Most PC pump manufacturers have stator products available with several different elastomer types. Because the formulations of these elastomers are considered proprietary, there is no standard naming convention. Certain generic names are common to the different manufacturers, but elastomer properties may vary significantly.
Although there is a wide range of different elastomer types, almost all PC pumps use some variation of a synthetic nitrile elastomer. Within the class of nitrile elastomers, there is a virtually unlimited number of different formulations possible with an associated wide range of mechanical and chemical properties. A discussion of the more common types of elastomers used in PC pumps follows.
Most elastomers in PC pumps can be classified as conventional nitrile (NBR). The base polymers for these elastomers are manufactured by emulsion copolymerization of butadiene with acrylonitrile (ACN). ACN contents in nitrile elastomers typically vary from 30 to 50%, with the cost of the elastomer increasing marginally with increasing ACN level. Most manufacturers distinguish between a medium nitrile (sometimes called Buna, which typically has an ACN content < 40%) and a high nitrile (> 40% ACN). Increasing ACN levels produce increasing polarity, which improves the elastomer’s resistance to nonpolar oils and solvents. However, higher ACN levels result in increased swell in the presence of such polar media as esters, ketones, or other polar solvents and leads to a decline in certain mechanical properties. It is important to note that aromatics such as benzene, toluene, and xylene swell NBR elastomers considerably, regardless of ACN level.
NBR elastomers are normally sulfur cured, and the combination of sulfur with the natural unsaturation of the elastomer can result in additional cross-linking and associated hardening in the presence of heat. As a result, NBR elastomers are not recommended for continuous use at temperatures that exceed 100°C [212°F]. For a similar reason, NBR elastomers also are not recommended for applications that contain high levels of H2S because the sour gas contributes additional sulfur, which leads to post-vulcanization and surface hardening. These changes result in a loss of resilience and elasticity, typically causing premature stator failure.
Historically, the hardness of NBR elastomers has been between 65 and 75 Shore A. More recently, manufacturers have introduced soft medium NBRs (55 to 60 Shore A) for abrasive, heavy oil applications. The rationale was that they would be more forgiving to the gravel and iron pyrite solids that are produced occasionally and have a tendency to tear the stator material. The soft elastomer requires the use of a higher degree of rotor/stator interference fit, which has the advantage of maintaining some sealing even after extensive wear of the rotor or stator.
Hydrogenated NBR (HNBR)
Conventional NBR elastomers, especially when sulfur cured, often contain a large degree of unsaturation in the form of double and triple carbon-carbon bonds in the base polymer. Relative to a more stable single bond, these unsaturated hydrocarbon groups are susceptible to chemical attack or additional cross-linking. This is the primary reason why NBRs experience problems upon exposure to high temperatures, H2S, and aggressive chemicals.
Through a hydrogenation process, it is possible to increase the saturation (i.e., decrease the number of double and triple carbon-carbon bonds) of the NBR polymer, thus stabilizing the associated elastomer. The degree of saturation can vary, but typically it is > 90% and can be as high as 99.9%. If the saturation is very high, then a sulfur cure system is no longer effective, and a peroxide cure must be used. These compounds are typically referred to as highly saturated nitriles (HSN) or hydrogenated nitriles (HNBR). For an equivalent volume, the cost of an HNBR elastomer is typically four times that of a conventional NBR, making the stators made from such elastomers considerably more expensive.
The primary advantage of an HNBR is increased heat resistance. Sulfur-cured HNBRs can ideally be used up to 125°C [257°F], whereas higher-saturation peroxide-cured compounds can potentially be used in applications with temperatures up to 150°C [300°F]. Other advantages, especially if the elastomer is peroxide cured, include improved chemical resistance and H2S tolerance. The mechanical properties of HNBR elastomers usually are similar to those of NBR elastomers.
Most PC pump manufacturers offer HNBR stators, but the limited number of applications that warrant the higher cost have kept their use to relatively low levels. Historically, the HNBR polymers have been highly viscous and difficult to inject into stators, increasing manufacturing costs substantially. However, within the last few years, the polymer manufacturers have introduced lower-viscosity, high-ACN HNBR elastomers. As a result, pump manufacturers have taken a renewed interest in these elastomers, which may lead to more use of HNBR compounds in stator products in the future.
FKMs have been expanding in availability and use over the last decade. Although a number of different varieties of FKMs are available, common to all is the presence of high levels of fluorine that saturate the carbon chain. The carbon-fluorine bonds in FKMs are extremely strong, giving this formulation heat and chemical resistance superior to that of most other elastomers.
FKMs are, to a large extent, made up of the fluoro-polymer and thus contain a low level of fillers and additives. As a result, the mechanical properties of FKMs tend to be inferior to those of NBR and HNBR elastomers. In terms of chemical stability, they have excellent resistance to heat, although their mechanical properties tend to deteriorate further at high temperatures from already relatively low initial levels. A variety of cure systems are used for FKM elastomers, including peroxide, but they require an extended post-curing session to optimize their properties, adding considerably to manufacturing process costs. As a result, the cost for an equivalent volume of FKM elastomer may range from 20 to several hundred times that of a conventional NBR. This makes all but the lower-cost grades of FKMs uneconomical for PC pump stators, and even those that are viable carry a high cost premium.
The primary advantage of an FKM elastomer is the increased heat and chemical resistance. FKM elastomers have the potential to be used up to 200°C [400°F] as long as they are not subject to excessive mechanical loading (proper sizing of PC pumps is critical). In terms of fluid resistance, they have minimal swell with most oilfield fluids, including aromatics.
General use of FKM elastomers in PC pump applications is relatively recent, with several PC pump manufacturers now offering these products. Some success has notably been encountered in lighter-oil applications in which NBR stators swell, necessitating multiple rotor changes. Despite being expensive, FKM stator products appear to be viable in certain applications, especially if the pumps are sized properly and extended run times are achieved.
Elastomer selection for a particular application involves deciding on a particular formulation or type (i.e., medium or high NBR, HNBR, or FKM) and a specific stator supplier because the basic formulations differ between manufacturers. For the most part, elastomer selection is based on the downhole conditions and required fluid resistance. Although mechanical properties are also important, sufficient detailed information is not routinely available from the PC pump manufacturers to make this a consideration in elastomer selection.
Most manufacturers publish guidelines for elastomer selection that are based on anticipated downhole conditions, including:
- Fluid type
- Operating temperature
Historically, API fluid gravity has been used as the primary measure of fluid aggressiveness in terms of elastomer swell and associated property deterioration. Although a strong trend does exist directionally, problems can arise when API gravity is used as the main selection criterion (i.e., especially at the higher end), given that fluids of the same gravity can have vastly different compositions of the aromatic components that cause swell. There are exceptions to this rule, such as the heavy oil fields in Venezuela, where the gravity is low but the quantity of aromatics is relatively high and can lead to problems with fluid swell. Although the exact value varies somewhat between manufacturers, the crossover point for medium to high NBR use is typically about 25°API. Most manufacturers do not recommend the use of a conventional NBR beyond 35 to 40°API. At the higher API gravities, the only options are FKM or perhaps HNBR formulations, although these elastomers are available only from certain manufacturers and their use is usually restricted to a narrow range of applications.
When a question exists as to the best elastomer to use, it is common practice to perform compatibility tests with the wellbore fluid and selected elastomer samples. These tests generally provide an effective means to rank the suitability of different elastomers (i.e., especially of the same type from different manufacturers) and can be helpful in establishing appropriate rotor sizing. Results almost always consist of volume, mass, and hardness change and, in some cases, may include changes in mechanical properties. From previous testing experience and tracking of pump performance, most pump suppliers have established limits for the maximum volume and hardness change for which they recommend use of their products.
Although compatibility testing provides a more scientific way to select elastomers, it is not practical in many cases because it is difficult to get the well fluids, representative elastomer samples, and a laboratory that does the specialized testing all in the same location. Nevertheless, there are a number of techniques based solely on fluid analyses that may be used to assist in elastomer selection. Hydrocarbon analysis through chromatographic techniques has been the most widely used method, but for it to be helpful in assessing elastomer compatibility, the analysis must include detection of the hexanes plus. This results in a breakdown (mole, mass, and volume percent) by component up to C30+, so the test is often referred to by this name (i.e., C30+). Results are normally divided into paraffin, aromatic, and naphthene groups, with breakdowns of specific components within each group. The most useful information includes the total percent aromatics and levels of individual aromatic components. Most PC pump manufacturers are familiar with this testing method and have guidelines on the maximum percent aromatics recommended for each of their elastomers. A less expensive, more readily available method for fluid analysis is an aniline point test (ASTM D611). Aromatic hydrocarbons exhibit the lowest aniline point (e.g., 60°C [140°F] for diesel), whereas oils with low aromatics typically have values that are > 100°C [212°F]. This test has been used extensively to assess elastomer compatibility in the drilling industry, but its use for PC pumps is new, so relationships between aniline point and recommended elastomers are still being compiled.
The limitations to the elastomer selection “rules” associated with API gravity or hydrocarbon analysis are usually the result of temperature or H2S. Conventional NBR elastomers are normally not recommended for temperatures > 100°C [212°F] or with H2S concentrations > 2% because of the elastomer hardening that occurs over time, frequently leading to cracking and fatigue. In these cases, HNBR or FKM elastomers are more appropriate choices. However, caution must be exercised when these elastomers are considered because the fluid resistance of the HNBR elastomers varies significantly by manufacturer and mechanical loading considerations must be addressed with FKM elastomers.
Despite all these selection methods, it is important to point out that operators are typically faced with using a “trial-and-error” approach to determine optimal elastomer selection and pump sizing when applying PCP systems in new areas.
- Gent, A.N. 1992. Engineering With Rubber. New York City: Oxford University Press.
- Morton, M. 1995. Rubber Technology, third edition. London: Chapman and Hall.
- Morrell, S.H. 1984. Recent Developments in Nitrile Rubber. Progress of Rubber Technology 46 (Section 2): 43–84.fckLR
- Campomizzi, E.C. 1985. Engineering Properties of Hydrogenated Nitrile Rubber. Paper presented at the 1985 Energy Rubber Group Education Symposium, Arlington, Texas, 17–18 September.
- Hashimoto, K., Noboru W., and Akira Y. 1983. Highly Saturated Nitrile Elastomer: A New High Temperature, Chemical Resistant Elastomer. Paper presented at the 1983 Meeting of the Rubber Division of the ACS, Houston, 25–28 October.
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