You are on page 1of 6

Recent Advances in Natural Gas Measurement

Edgar B. Bowles, Jr. & Dr. Gregory J. Hatton

Introduction
There is a growing natural gas industry trend toward improved measurement
accuracy and more timely measurement information. Both business and technology
drivers have contributed to this trend. From a business perspective, recent deregulation
of many segments of the industry and the competitive nature of the industry as a whole
have been key. For example, in most instances, gas company costs associated with
operational and measurement inefficiencies (e.g., lost and unaccounted for gas volumes)
can no longer be ‘passed through’ to customers, as was the practice in the days of a
regulated industry. Thus, gas companies are looking for measurement systems that are
more precise and less costly to acquire and operate. From a technology perspective,
expanded use of microprocessor technology has been a key element in helping to
improve gas measurement equipment performance. There has also been a significant
research and development (R&D) effort over the past ten to fifteen years to advance the
industry’s understanding of natural gas measurement. Foremost among the R&D efforts
has been a program funded since 1988 by the Gas Technology Institute (GTI). The GTI
program has been guided by a group of industry measurement experts and has addressed
a broad range of topics related to existing and new gas measurement technologies.
Another important aspect of gas measurement that has received attention over the
past decade is standardization. Since gas is now essentially bought and sold as a
commodity and may change ownership several times from wellhead to burner tip,
standardization of the measurement process at custody transfer points is critical for fair
and equitable transactions. Industry standards-writing groups, such as the American
Petroleum Institute (API), the American Gas Association (AGA), and the Gas Processors
Association (GPA) have worked hard over the past decade to update existing gas
measurement standards and help establish emerging technologies by developing new
standards. These standards give guidance on the proper use of the various measurement
technologies available today and result in industry-wide uniformity in the application of
these technologies.
Natural gas is typically bought and sold on the basis of the amount of energy
delivered. Energy flow rate is usually determined from separate measurements of the
volumetric flow rate and heating value per unit volume. Although space constraints do
not allow for a comprehensive review of recent gas measurement advances, some of the
significant recent developments in volumetric measurement and heating value
determination for both dry and wet gas flows are discussed below. There have not only
been significant improvements with traditional measurement technologies, such as with
orifice flow meters, but new technologies, such as ultrasonic flow meters, have also
emerged as cost-effective alternatives to traditional methods.

Traditional Volumetric Measurement Technology – Orifice Flow Meters


Orifice metering is by far the most common method for measuring high-volume
natural gas flows. The orifice meter has been in existence for over 100 years, but

Article for American Oil & Gas Reporter August 31, 2001
improvements in its performance are still being made. For instance, recent research has
shown that orifice meters can be very sensitive to the upstream piping configuration.
Bends or restrictions, such as valves or pressure regulators, in the piping upstream of an
orifice can produce swirl or velocity profile asymmetries, or both, that can propagate
downstream to the orifice and result in measurement bias errors of 1%, or more, in some
instances.
To mitigate upstream piping effects, two possible solutions have been identified:
(1) place a long, straight piece of pipe upstream of the orifice or (2) add a flow
‘conditioner’ immediately upstream of the orifice. Flow conditioners are devices placed
in the flow stream that eliminate flow distortions by redistributing the flow across the
pipe cross section. Some example flow conditioners are shown in Figure 1. Ideally, the
flow field at an orifice should have what is described as a fully-developed, swirl-free,
turbulent velocity profile. This will result in an unbiased measurement.

Figure 1. Example Flow Conditioners

If piping effects are eliminated by adding a long straight length of pipe upstream
of an orifice, up to 145 pipe diameters may be required because some flow distortions
need that much axial distance to dissipate (due to turbulent mixing and pipe wall
friction). Long upstream pipe lengths substantially increase the cost of an orifice meter
installation. For example, one square foot of floor space on an offshore platform can cost
$100,000 or more.
Recent research has shown that judicious use of a ‘high-performance’ flow
conditioner can reduce the upstream straight pipe length requirement to 10 pipe diameters
– over an order of magnitude reduction in length compared to a ‘bare tube’ installation.
This approach can provide very substantial installation cost savings because less pipe and

Article for American Oil & Gas Reporter August 31, 2001
supporting structure are needed and the meter station footprint is minimized. In addition,
a measurement bias from an upstream piping effect has been avoided, as have any
associated costs.

Emerging Volumetric Measurement Technology – Ultrasonic Flow Meters


A relatively new measurement technology for high-pressure, high-volume dry gas
applications, ultrasonic metering, began receiving broad acceptance for custody transfer
applications after the American Gas Association published their Report No. 9 (entitled
Measurement of Gas by Multipath Ultrasonic Meters) in June 1998. Ultrasonic flow
meters (see Figure 2) are apparently becoming the industry’s meter of choice for high-
volume applications. Ultrasonic meters range in size from 4-inches to over 36-inches in
diameter. Key features include (1) a broader turn-down ratio (i.e., flow range) than
competing meter types; (2) no flow restriction within the meter body for minimal flow
blockage and permanent pressure loss across the meter; (3) an on-board microprocessor
for electronic data acquisition, processing, and transmission and meter self-diagnostics;
and (4) no moving parts to wear out. Measurement accuracy is approximately
comparable to or better than most competing measurement technologies. Reported
saving of between $250,00 and $500,000 per meter station have been reported when
ultrasonic meters have been used in place of more traditional flow meter types, such as
orifice or turbine meters. Saving on this order are achieved when one ultrasonic meter
can take the place of multiple meters of another (due to the superior rangeability of the
ultrasonic meter). Because ultrasonic meter manufacturers are continuing to make
significant improvements to this technology, the AGA is currently in the process of
updating their Report No.9 to provide users with better operational guidelines for this
technology in the future.

Figure 2. Example Ultrasonic Gas Flow Meter

Heating Value Determination


The conventional way to determine the heating value of natural gas is to draw a
gas sample from the pipe and run the sample through a gas chromatograph to establish

Article for American Oil & Gas Reporter August 31, 2001
the compositional makeup of the gas mixture. An equation of state is then used to
calculate the heating value and other properties (such as gas density or speed of sound) of
the gas mixture.
A six-year research effort, funded by GTI, API, and the United States Minerals
Management Service, was recently completed in support of the updating of Chapter 14. 1
(entitled Collecting and Handling of Natural Gas Samples for Custody Transfer) of the
American Petroleum Institute Manual of Petroleum Measurement Standards (MPMS).
Chapter 14.1 of the API MPMS describes the methodologies for acquiring and processing
gas samples. All of the commonly-used spot, composite, and on-line gas sampling
methods are referenced in Chapter 14.1. The recently-completed research found that
improper sampling technique can result in heating value bias errors of 14% or more.
Measurement errors are most likely to occur when either the sampling system or the
sample, or both, are at or near the hydrocarbon dew point of the gas mixture. Under these
circumstances, changes in the phase of the mixture (e.g., condensation or evaporation) are
more likely to occur and introduce measurement errors into the process. Additional
research is now underway to further advance the industry’s knowledge of this critical
subject.

Direct Energy Flow Rate Measurement


Several alternatives to the conventional means of determining energy flow rate
(via volumetric metering combined with gas composition characterization using gas
chromatography to assess heating value) are now under development. Most of these
methods eliminate gas chromatography for inferring heating value and, instead, measure
several other process parameters to obtain the heating value. One alternative method
conceived by Southwest Research Institute and receiving financial support from the U.S.
Department of Energy and the Gas Technology Institute requires measurements of only
the gas pressure, temperature, and speed of sound, plus, measurements of the diluent
concentrations (i.e., nitrogen and carbon dioxide). A mathematical algorithm correlates
these process parameters and the volumetric flow rate to determine the energy flow rate
value. This method is currently in prototype development and is being optimized for
transmission and distribution quality gas. The instrumentation package (see Figure 3)
used to measure the pressure, temperature, speed of sound, and diluent concentrations can
be used with any volumetric meter type and the commercial version is expected to be
much less costly than a conventional gas chromatograph. Additional savings can be
realized when the instrumentation package is used in combination with an ultrasonic flow
meter, which already has available the speed of sound measurement. In that instance, the
speed of sound sensor can be deleted from the instrumentation package.
In addition to the concept being developed by Southwest Research Institute, other
concepts from Invensys Corporation and Reynolds Equipment are in various stages of
development. Each is aimed at providing a more cost-effective way to measure energy
flow rate on a ‘real-time’ basis.

Article for American Oil & Gas Reporter August 31, 2001
Figure 3. Energy Flow Rate Meter Instrumentation Package

Wet Gas Measurement


The development of meters to measure gas rate and liquid rate of wet gas streams
has accelerated in the past few years. While wet gas streams – “gas” streams transporting
liquid up to a few percent-by-volume – are present in many pipelines, the driving
application for wet gas meter development is metering of produced fluid from deepwater
gas wells. Deepwater gas reservoirs are being developed with long offset systems in
order to reduce costs. The produced fluids from a number of deepwater subsea wells are
commingled and transported in a single, tens-of-miles long pipeline to a remote
processing facility in shallower water. Metering of produced fluid at each wellhead is
important for flow assurance. Economic inhibition of hydrate and paraffin deposition (as
well as addressing other flow assurance problems) requires information on the
water/condensate rate(s) at the wellhead. In addition, the metering of produced fluid
from each well is an important part of reservoir engineering and may also be required for
royalty or allocation purposes.
The development of wet gas meters is challenging. This is because wet gas flow
is physically different from dry gas flow. Obviously, dry gas flow is a single,
homogeneous phase system, while wet gas flow is a two-phase system that is often very
inhomogeneous. At most field conditions, the liquid (in wet gas) flows at a different
average velocity than the gas, and the liquid distribution across the pipe cross section is
non-homogeneous. Furthermore, in wet gas streams, the liquid loading fluctuates with
significant variations from the average loading over time periods on the order of a
minute.
The requirement that a wet gas meter be suitable for deepwater applications adds
further constraints. The meter must be very reliable, robust, and suited for deepwater
conditions. In particular, the produced fluid stream of deepwater wells is typically at a
higher pressure than occurs in most dry gas metering applications. Flowing wellhead
pressures of 4,000 psi to 6,000 psi are common for deepwater gas wells. At these

Article for American Oil & Gas Reporter August 31, 2001
pressures, the ratio of the gas-to-liquid densities is 1-to-4 and greater – resulting in
physical phenomena that are different from those at lower pressure metering applications.
Because the deepwater wet gas metering environment is severe and unique, and
because operations on deepwater meters are very expensive – selecting, testing,
calibrating, and qualifying wet gas meters for deepwater applications are very important
and challenging tasks. The fluid properties of the anticipated produced fluid at wellhead
conditions are very different from the properties of water, diesel, and air at near
atmospheric conditions. Because of this, it is critical to perform the testing, calibrating
and qualifying at anticipated field temperatures and pressures, and with fluid having the
anticipated field fluid properties.
To date, wet gas meters have not achieved the measurement accuracy and
repeatability levels of dry gas meters, although wet meter performance continues to
improve as manufacturers refine their designs. As an aid to successful wet gas metering
in deepwater applications, the American Petroleum Institute has begun developing a
‘recommended practice’ for wet gas metering.

Future Developments
A range of gas measurement innovations and improvements can be expected in
the next few years. Refinements to traditional measurement technologies will continue to
be made. New technologies, such as Coriolis metering, will also gain acceptance.
Emphasis will be on more cost-effective systems and more accurate and timely data.
Real-time measurement will be the goal of most gas companies.
Microprocessor technology will become more pervasive in gas measurement
equipment. Expanded use of embedded microprocessors in measurement systems should
improve measurement accuracy, speed the transfer/distribution of the measured data, and
enhance the self-diagnostic capabilities of the measurement equipment. Computer
modeling of gas flow through pipeline networks will supplement field measurement data
and provide a more accurate view of system status/performance/safety. All of these
improvements should increase operational efficiency, maximize system throughput,
reduce operating costs, and help ensure safe operations.
Also, expect greater emphasis on industry standardization. This will help
minimize equipment costs, provide improved interchangeability and commonality of
hardware and software, and provide an avenue for new measurement technologies to
become established.

Article for American Oil & Gas Reporter August 31, 2001