The major cause of foam in crude oil is the appearance of impurities, other than water, which are impractical to remove before the stream reaches the separator. Foam presents no problem within a separator if the internal design assures adequate time or sufficient coalescing surface for the foam to “break.” Foaming in a separating vessel is a threefold problem:
1. Mechanical control of liquid level is aggravated because any control device must deal with essentially three liquid phases instead of two.
2. Foam has a large volume-to-weight ratio. Therefore, it can occupy much of the vessel space that would otherwise be available in the liquid collecting or gravity settling sections.
3. In an uncontrolled foam bank, it becomes impossible to remove separated gas or degassed oil from the vessel without entraining some of the foamy material in either the liquid or gas outlets. Comparison of foaming tendencies of a known oil to a new one, about which no operational information is known, provides an understanding of the relative foam problem that may be expected with the new oil as weighed against the known oil. A related amount of adjustment can thenbe made in the design parameters, as compared to those found satisfactory for the known case.
It should be noted that the amount of foam is dependent on the pressure drop to which the inlet liquid is subjected, as well as the characteristics of the liquid at separator conditions. In some cases, the effect of temperature may be significant.
Foam depressants often will do a good job in increasing the capacity of a given separator. However, in sizing a separator to handle a particular crude, the use of an effective depressant should not be assumed because characteristics of the crude and of the foam may change during the life of the field. Also, the cost of foam depressants for high rate production may be prohibitive. Sufficient capacity should be provided in the separator to handle the anticipated production without use of a foam depressant or inhibitor. Once placed in operation, a foam depressant may allow more throughput than the design capacity.