History

The origin of drag reducing agents (DRA) dates back to the 1930s in the pulp and paper industry, but it is B.A. Toms who piqued interest with the article “Some observations on the flow of linear polymer solutions through straight tubes at large Reynolds numbers,” found in Proceedings of the First International Congress on Rheology, vol. 2, pp. 135–141, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 1948. As a result, the phenomenon of drag reduction is also known as the Toms Effect.

Since this publication, many applications in different industries have been discovered to maximize upon the benefits of DRA.  Testing continues today in industries as varied as medical to military, finding new ways to exploit the abatement of turbulence by polymeric substances.  In the oil industry, DRA, also referred to as flow improvers, reduce hydraulic friction in the form of turbulence in a pipeline. Less turbulence allows crude oil to flow more efficiently, requiring less energy. In turn, the pipeline system requires less pumping equipment or a smaller pipe thereby reducing operating and/or construction costs.  In the pipeline industry, the ubiquitous use of DRA rests on the fact that reducing turbulence means less energy is required to move liquids from one end of the pipeline to the other.  Of course, there are other reasons for using DRA such as safety, but the money maker is for flow rate increase with a close second being energy savings. 

First Commercial Application

A part of the DRA industry since the beginning, the team at Optum Energy Solutions was actively involved in the first commercial use of DRA for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, running from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, Alaska. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the engineering feat known as the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was designed with the expectations that the pipeline would supply 20 percent of the United States' crude oil needs. At 800 miles long, the pipeline would cross three mountain ranges and hundreds of bodies of water. The building of pump stations along the rough terrain was implemented in phases with the introduction of each new station resulting in increased throughput but requiring more and more mechanical horsepower.  DRA was tested as a substitute for horsepower and it proved to be a viable alternative.

Alaska DRA project

The use of DRA enabled the pipeline to handle peak oil flow of 2.15 million bpd. Maximum capacity without DRA was slightly more than 1.4 million bpd, according to one official involved with the project.

“DRA use, when injected at strategic locations, allowed 28 pumps to pump 2.1 million bpd of oil and eliminated the need for eight additional operating pumps and gas turbines,” he said. “I’d say a rough estimate of the cost savings in facility construction from DRA would be approximately $300 million, in 1977 dollars. In today’s dollars, that would be in excess of $1 billion.”

DRA Today

Depending on the industry, drag reduction application is in various states of maturity.  For the pipeline industry, the technology development and use is advanced with consistently proven results with a focus on continuous improvements in the efficiency of the product injected. Optum’s focus is more nuanced because of our business strategy. Although our R&D group is completely focused on the chemistry and engineering of the product, our corporate aim is to create and deliver the best value proposition available to our customers. This is a more holistic approach to the entire value chain associated with the use of DRA.

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