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well rehabilitation/ The Hidden Danger of Hydrogen Embrittlement and Current Water Well Rehabilitation Practices: A Cautionary Tale When common well acids meet hydrogen sulfide gas, it can prove deadly for well screens. By Christopher S. Johnson, RG, CI circumstances, you very well may have destroyed the well sceen that you ‘were attempting to clean, In aneffort to improve the performance of a particular ‘water well, you carefully acidified the well according to the manufacturers’ guide- lines and our industry's collective wis- dom regarding well Cleaning. Unfortu- nately, itis often what we don’t know that can eause problems. The rehabilitative use of acids in wells that are exposed to dissolved hydrogen sulfide gas in the well water may create a situation in which the well sereen may actually col- lapse. | tis quite possible that, under certain The History of Wells and Acid Cleaning water supply wells with ‘various types and concentrations of acid is ahistorical and current practice among those who conduct these rehabilitation projects. Mineral incrustation of well sereens has been a historically recog- nized problem, and within the last sev- ‘eral years the ability of bacteria in the well and aquifer environment to diminish well performance is becoming better ‘understood. Cleaning (or rehabilitating) wells is ‘becoming more popular and more frequent as we gain further knowledge about the causes of diminished well performance related to mineral and bacterial obstrue- tions of well screens. Our industry is developing better procedures, better tools, and better chemicals to remove ‘or reduce mineral incrustations and bac- terial infestations, ‘Acids were first used to dissolve ‘mineral precipitates, such as calcium 30) March 2003. Wote Wel Journal HG izing a well introduces @ high concentration of hydrogen into the immediate well environment. Ifthe well casing and sereen have become embrittled as a result ‘of fong-term exposure to low concentrations of hydrogen sulfide, then the introduction of concentrated hydrogen atoms (i. id) into the well may very well destabilize the structural integrity to the point of failure, carbonate, When itwas determined that bacteria could also block the perforated sections of wells, acids were turned against them. In both cases, these acids have generally proven effective an over time we have leamed a great deal about, the proper types, concentrations, and, mixes of acid to deal with these mineral incrustations and bacteria obstructing well screens In genera, the introduction of acid into the well environment creates a hydro- gen-ion-rich condition, Various reactions an oceur, depending on te type of inerus- tation present. In most cases. the incrus- tation reacts with the acid to form solu- ble salts (e-g., calcium chloride), nonproblematic ions (eg.,caleium), and in some cases, gas (e.g, carbon dioxide). From past to present, mineral acids are the primary chemical used to remove inerustation ((e., scale) and bacteria, Hydrochloric (murat), phosphoric, sul- {amic, and sulfuric (HSO,) mineral acids NewAow are the most commonly used for well rehabilitation. Within the last several years, the use of organic acids has become more common. Acetic, hydroxyacetic, citric, and oxalic acids are the most pop- lular organic acids for well rehabilitation, Initially, our practice was “more better” when it came to the amount of acid wwe used. Wit time, we have decreased. the quantity of acid being used without reducing the effectiveness of the acid in the well. We have also begun to improve the quality of the acid itself, in some cases using food-grade products approved by the National Sanitation Foundation (NSP) We have also improved the intro- ‘duction, deployment, and circulation of these acids inio the well screen, filter pack, and near-well aquifer over time. Acids are now routinely introduced directly into the well screen section through “tremie” pipes; agitated with the well, iter pack, and near-well aquifer with dual-swah assemblies; and circulated to the surface for enhancement and pH control. We are also combining tech- niques, using explosives and jeting tools, to force these acid solutions through the well screen and deeper into the filter pack and near-well aquifer Currently, the sophisticated use of acids, advanced physical procedures and tools, and improved testing procedures has brought well rehabilitation into the forefront of water well contractor and consultant practices. Well rehabilitation isa vital, important service for all of us, as we strive to improve the use of ground water in the United States and world- wide. What's Hydrogen Embrittlement? Lurking in the aquifer isa quiet killer. Hydrogen sulfide gas (H)S), easly iden- tified by the “rotten egg” odor, isa source ‘of hydrogen that ean potentially destroy ‘well, Metal exposed to hydrogen sul- fide gas can become structurally weak- cened through a process known as hydro- ‘gen embrittlement, Hydrogen embrittlement involves the movement of hydrogen (in the atomic ‘or uncharged form) into the metal crys- talline “lattice” of steel. The atomic hydrogen atoms diffuse through the ‘metal lattice, where they recombine to form hydrogen molecules creating an NGWAorg internal pressure in the metal. As these hydrogen atoms move (ingress) into the metal lattice they reduce the ductility and load-bearing capacity of the metal, causing cracking of metal structure to occur. Certain metal products are more sus- ceptible, such as stress-loaded or hard- ened procicts that have a retained energy within them, As such, well sereen mate- rial, which is often manufactured with high-tensilestel and formed or worked tocteate perforations, can experience a catastrophic brittle failure, often below ‘what is considered normal yield sires for the material Hydrogen sulfide gas ina water well should be considered an environmental contaminant. The process by which hydrogen sulfide enters and weakens the metal is known by many names, such as stress corrosion cracking, sulfide stress cracking, and periaps most appropri ately, wet HS cracking. Ie-may be possible that under relatively high concentrations of HS, litle resi- dence time is necessary to adversely affect new well sereen. Little practical research is readily available regarding water well sereen material exposed t0 hhydrogen sulfide gas in ground water, such that a threshold concentration of HS could be described as “high” or “low.” However, practical experience suggests that a concentration more than 20 parts per million ought (o be considered as high, until further research can adjust this threshold. Anecdotally. the author isaware of at least two wells exposed to “relatively” high concentrations of HyS that failed within hours on instalation Conversely, the concentration of HS may not need to be high, ifsufficient exposure time is allowed, to generate an “embrittled” condition. In the case of some water Wells, years may pass before a well would need tobe rehabil- itated because of declining production. Ivis during these initial years that the hydrogen sulfide does its damage. Expo sure overtime may create a well easing and well screen that have become embrit ted, with an appreciable loss of structural integrity in the weil Now we come tothe problem. I men- tioned earlier that acidizing a well intro- duces a high concentration of hydrogen into the immediate well environment. IF the well casing and sereen have become embrttled asa result of long-term expo sure to low concentrations of hydrogen sulfide, then the introduction of con- centrated hydrogen atoms (i.e., acid) into the well may very well destabilize the structural integrity to the point of failure, The failure may be almost imme- diate, or may require the physical cata- lyst of swabbing the acid through the well screens. In either case, the author is aware of atleast three incidents where the presence of hydrogen sulfide in the ‘well, followed by the use of aids in a ree bilitative effort, may have led to the cole lapse of the well screen. A great deal is known about hydrogen embrittlement in the oil iAdustry. However, the water well industry has not had to face this issue historically. It is only recently, as more of us employ powerful acids to combat mineral incrustation and biofouling, that the potential problem of hydrogen embrittlement has become an issue. Caution—Here Be Dragons! A great deal is known about hydro- ‘gen embrittlement in the oil industry. However, the water well industry has not had to face this issue historically. 1 is only recently, as more of us employ powerful acids to combat mineral incrus- tation and biofouling, thatthe potential problem of hydrogen embrittlement has become an issue, So be advised: If your client's well has hydrogen sulfide pres- ent, then the use of acids for rehabilita- tion should be given serious considera- tion. Wi Christopher S. Johnson, RG, CHG, is the Chief Hycrogeologist with Kieinfelder's Tech- nical Resource Center (Fresno, California), He isa registered geologist ane certified hydra- geologist in California and has been employed by Kleinfelder Inc. for 17 years WterWel-urno! Mareh 2003 31)