A North Dakota family has come up with the latest invention for the Bakken, one that prevents toxic spills in oil fields.
The family of David Allen, who operate the business Elite Energy Services, has patented a scanner that can detect when a mechanism called the fire tube has become corroded and needs to be replaced. A fire tube is part of the heater treater which separates saltwater, oil and gas deep within the well.

The Internal Fire Tube Scanner goes into the fire tube and can graphically depict the thickness of the tube and provide warning when it has become too thin. Immersed in corrosive salt water, the carbon steel tube is doomed to eventually fail, but being able to predict when that will happen has always been difficult, and a misstep in replacing it leads to a saltwater spill.
It has been the business of Elite Energy Services to clean up those spills, since the company’s founding in 2012.
The federal government then imposed a new regulation that actually made the problem worse. In an effort to reduce the volatility of the crude oil, the federal government imposed mandates that required that heater treaters function at higher temperatures to drive off some of the volatile compounds, which increased the rate of corrosion, and hence the rate of failures.
The Allen family came to believe that there had to be a better way. They launched a worldwide research effort to see if there was any technology that could provide advance warning regarding a potential failure. Finding none, they worked with consultants in Germany and Great Britain and invested $250,000 in developing a prototype scanner that would address the problem.


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The Jefferson Star

It’s all about family for Derek Allen. The Rigby native says he wouldn’t be where he is without them.

Through a joint venture, the Allen family has created a scanning system for the oil and gas industry that will determine when a fire tube needs to be replaced.

“We couldn’t have made it if we didn’t do it together,” Allen said. “The family aspect has really built this business.”

Before their invention, oil companies would wait for the imminent failure of their fire tubes, resulting in spills, accidents, and even explosions.

Changing out fire tubes is expensive and the time frame is unpredictable, with some lasting six months and others lasting four years.

“So they waited for it to fail and hoped it didn’t cause a catastrophic event,” Allen said. “That’s what’s so exciting for me: to create a market here for something they didn’t know they needed. We’re pioneering something new.”

Allen joined many eastern Idahoans looking for work in the North Dakota oil fields in 2010, with a goal to own a business. He started driving truck, then moved into the general maintenance and upkeep side of the oil industry, or “roustabout” work, fixing leaks and changing belts. When he got a handle on that, he scraped up his savings to start his own company, Elite Energy Services.

Start-up was a grueling process, with no paycheck for six months, but business soon boomed.

“Things got busy, so I decided to bring my family up here. It was a great opportunity to work together as a family again,” Allen said.

They soon spotted the trend for failing fire tubes.

“They would always fail no matter what and always spill— some small, some several barrels. We said, ‘there’s got to be a better way to do this.’”

His father David Allen started to think outside the box. With his medical background, he considered using ultrasound or X-rays to measure the thickness of the fire tubes. He called experts all over the world and discovered a technology in the U.K. called Magnetic Flux Leakage. It led to their prototype scanner that goes inside the tube and gives a graphic image of its thickness.

“So then we had to interpret that data,” Derek Allen said. “That’s where my brother came in. He is really good with computers. It took two years to get the procedure from inception to completion.”

The result was a scanner that is cost-effective, accurate, and provides real-time data. And now that the oil industry has seen results, they can’t live without it, Allen said.

But the best part has been working together as a family.

“All the pain and suffering has been worth it. And just to see the family all doing their part and working together. It’s just awe- some. It hasn’t really sunk in yet. It’s exciting.” The project has been self-funded.

“We didn’t want investors, so we could have control and reap the rewards. It pushed us to be successful. So, it stays within the family. We are looking ahead to future generations,” he said.

Allen’s parents still own their home and property in Rigby, and the family would like to move back and set up a manufacturing facility.

“I think Idaho is a pretty centralized place and it would be nice to be back,” Allen said. “I miss it. I grew up there and it’s paradise.”

For the immediate future, his goal is to complete 500 scans, enabling them to work through every situation and possibility. “We’re halfway through that 500. Of that, 15 percent were ready to fail within the next week or two weeks,” Allen said.

That amounted to about 30 sites where they were able to change out the fire tube before failure occurred—preventing spills and accidents.

“The other 85 percent we can predict failure or rescan,” Allen said. “Oil companies can go through the winter without emergency situations. They’re loving that. The ability to predict this save them so much.”

After they complete 500 scans, they will be ready to train other crews. They hope to have six crews up and running by early next year. They’ve been asked to make their scans available in other states as well.

“That’s the plan—move into Wyoming and Utah next year and then Texas,” Allen said. “In the next two years, we should have a good foothold in the U.S.” Besides scanning, the company will provide every aspect of fire tube maintenance. And David Allen is still working on new devices and inventions to make fire tubes last longer.

But whatever the future holds, the Allen family will build it together.


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The Williston Herald

Heater treaters have traditionally been used to speed the separation of oil and water emulsions by applying a little heat. They’ve worked well for the past 50 years, but now they are under new demands to help the industry achieve North Dakota’s new vapor pressure standards. In short, they’re getting a workout, and it has increased the potential for failures that can lead to saltwater spills and even, in some cases, explosions.

A number of new inventions are circling the problem, such as Statoil’s recent efforts to develop a chemical process to bypass heater treaters altogether, or a different heater treater altogether developed by Wayne King with TecValco, one that the inventor believes will reduce the overall footprint of a well pad.

Now comes a third invention. This one does not change heater treaters at all, which many in the industry are reluctant to change since they have been considered reliable and good enough for the past 50 years. Rather, the new invention allows a non-invasive scan, without stopping well production, that can tell an operator when it’s time to replace the fire tube.

The new approach was developed by Elite Energy Services, a family roustabout business established in the Bakken in 2012 by Derek Allen. They specialized before the downturn in pulling out heater treaters to check them for weak spots, or changing out pipes that had failed — all the while thinking there had to be a better way than visual inspections or tapping a pipe with a screwdriver to see if it’s weak.

There wasn’t a lot of time to really think about that better way during the boom, but then the downturn hit. There was plenty of time to think. And a new urgency.

To survive, the family business needed something new in its lineup that competitors didn’t have.

That, or they’d have to pack up and go home.

Heater treaters’ fatal flaw

When oil comes out of the ground, a substantial portion is emulsified with deep, deep water that lies far below the water table. This brine has had millions of years to leach salts and minerals, and is referred to in the industry as produced water.

That’s its name, but corrosion is this brine’s aim. It is 13 to 15 times saltier than the ocean, and can eat metal for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Heater treaters were invented to separate oil from this corrosive brine, and under old parameters were fairly reliable. A metal fire tube is looped through a tank containing the oil-water emulsion, heating it up just enough that the oil is freed to float away. The brine gets left behind.

Add more heat more often, as the state’s new vapor pressure standards demand, and the corrosive power of that brine surrounding the fire tube increases, leading more quickly to weak points and eventually a hole.

Heater treaters can be pulled out for inspections, but the weak spots aren’t always readily apparent, and pulling them out not only means stopping a well’s production, but draining 80 or so barrels of fluid.

Many units thus fail before discovery, usually in small ways. Pinholes lead to tiny drips and drops. But the holes can also be much larger. And sometimes, depending on how large and sudden a failure was, they can also lead to explosions.

The well doctor will see you now

X-rays and ultrasounds were the first, most obvious avenues for a solution. But both of these would still require a heater treater’s fire tube to be pulled out, stopping well production, and requiring 80 barrels of fluid to be drained and managed. The costs involved with all of that weren’t necessarily feasible, and there could still be some blind spots in the scan, due to the curvature of the pipes.

“We knew this had to be fast and accurate,” Allen said. “And it couldn’t cost a whole lot.”

Their answer, it turns out, was far afield from the Bakken oil and gas industry.

“I got some of the ideas from medicine to a certain extent,” Derek’s father David Allen said.

Consultants from Germany and Great Britain helped them refine their idea into a process that uses magnets and electrical current to map the heater treater’s internal fire tube without taking it out of the well or stopping production. If inspectors find a hole, there would be no electrical current in that spot, and this can be mapped out by a computer program showing exactly where and to what extent there are weak spots.

“To a certain extent, that is what an MRI is,” David Allen said.

But in this case, the patient is a vital piece of oilfield equipment. The prototype for the Allens’ Internal Fire Tube Scanner costs around $250,000, and David and Derek joked that the family was on a rice and bean diet throughout the downturn, just hoping their idea would work out before they starved.

Fortunately for them, their idea has not only been catching on, it’s already prevented what were potentially serious and costly spills in the Bakken.

“We did a scan on a treater that was on a hill straight up from a herd of cattle and their watering source,” Derek Allen said. “If that would have leaked, all the saltwater would have gone into that pasture. We were able to identify this spot right here, where 85 percent of the fire tube was gone and give them a 10-day warning.”

David Allen estimates it would have cost the company between $100,000 to $200,000 to clean up a spill in that instance.

A small $500 scan is cheap prevention for such a costly cure, Derek Allen said.

“We gave them that report and they went out the following Monday with crews in an organized fashion,” David Allen added. “We gave them a couple days to get things in place in a proactive instead of reactive way.”

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The Bismarck Tribune

WILLISTON — David Allen’s family made it a mission to prevent dangerous and toxic spills in the oil patch.

Working with consultants in Germany and Great Britain and at substantial expense, they’ve patented a device that could make the oil patch cleaner in the long run. More importantly, it could help prevent the severe injuries and fatalities that do occur during repair and maintenance of the volatile treater units.

Made of dense powerful magnetic plates, coaster wheels and a sensing surface, the Internal Fire Tube Scanner goes where nothing has ever gone before, into the fire tube inside a well’s heater treater unit.

Heater treaters separate a potentially dangerous and toxic mix of saltwater, oil and gas from the oil well. Because the carbon steel fire tube is inserted into the lower heavier salt water, it’s subject to the constant corrosive effect of salt. Until now, the only way to know if a fire tube is corroded and subject to leaking is to shut down the well, drain the 80 barrels of fluid in the treater, pull out the tube, knock it with a hammer then try to examine the steel under the crusty salt layer.

The other way is to wait until it does leak, which it will, eventually, if left unchanged long enough, Allen said.

In one of those unintended consequences, a relatively new regulation aimed at reducing the volatility of Bakken crude has actually caused more corrosion. That’s because the heater treaters have to be operated at a higher temperature inside the fire tube to drive off some of the volatile compounds, he said.

“This is one place that will always fail, but generally there’s been no way to tell if it’s failing until a leak. There’s never been a way to diagnose that,” Allen said. “Me, my two boys and my wife, we wanted to see if we could make a difference.”

The family operates Elite Energy Services, a business started in 2012 that has gradually specialized in cleanup from heater treater spills and fire tube maintenance.

It’s an honorable occupation, but saltwater spills, especially if they occur multiple times over the life of the well on the same well pad, are inherently damaging.

“Some spills clean up really well, some don’t. I think over the 30-year life of a well, you very well could have damaged soil. We are learning that salt migrates and plumes out into the soil. Landowners are getting frustrated,” Allen said.

With that in mind, Allen family members bent their energy toward prevention.

“We wanted to see if there was technology somewhere to determine if these are going to go bad before they go bad. We started looking and called every place in the world. We figured we have to have something that goes inside the pipe. It needs to be cost-effective, accurate and user-friendly,” he said.

Many months  and $250,000 later, they now have a prototype scanner that can be deployed inside the tube. The sensors provide a graphic depiction of the thickness of the tube by measuring the resistance of the metal and the highest peaks on the graph correspond to the thinnest metal.

“We’ve done about 15 scans so far and most are at 50 percent,” said Allen, meaning that half the metal has corroded away.

A scan costs less than $700, cheaper than the $4,000 to replace a fire tube and much cheaper than if the well has to be shut for an extended time. And that’s nothing compared to the priceless measure of a human life lost from accidents around the flammable liquids.

Allen said a scan maintenance schedule would open the door to replacing the tubes on a planned basis, rather than in response to an emergency, when accidents are more likely to occur.

A scan takes about 45 minutes to complete and a report is generated instantly.

“They either pass or fail. If they’ve got spots at 75 percent (metal corroded), they don’t have a lot of time,” he said.

Eric Genet is president of the Mon-Dak Safety Network, a chapter of the National Service, Transportation, Exploration and Production Network, that focuses on safety practices in the oil and gas industry.

Genet said the Allens’ invention fits the way the network likes to approach safety.

 “Our first preference is to have a technically engineered solution, like this gentleman is looking to provide. If that’s not possible, then we move to the procedures,” he said. “In the last five to 10 years, we’ve seen leaps and bounds in technically engineered solutions.”

The Allens are currently demonstrating the Internal Fire Tube Scanner to company representatives, aiming to sell the idea that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Each of the 13,600 wells is equipped with a heater treater unit, so there is potential for the device to have a substantial impact on spills and safety.

 “Why should we accept tube failure as a normal practice if we can prevent it?” Allen asks.

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Minot Daily News

TIOGA – Tioga is partnering with North Dakota State University and the Williston Region Economic Development to celebrate innovations that have been developed in North Dakota to help the agriculture and energy industry.

Regional inventors will submit their patented ideas and products for the chance to be awarded up to $5,000 to help with patent fees and other costs.

Tioga is finding inventions, funding innovation, fostering business and connecting participants at the invention symposium to meet with investors, innovators and educators to learn how to find their next big idea, apply for a patent, manufacture or bring their inventions to market.

Inventors who have completed the patent process will be on hand to assist.

Inventors wishing to submit their patented idea for consideration can email dakotapublic@gmail.com or call 629-1624

On Aug. 5, at 10 a.m., the Invention Symposium opens to the public. Those attending can meet inventors like TubeMaster’s David and Derrick Allen of Elite Energy and see their electronic heater treater scanner that can help oil producers prevent saltwater disposal spills on production locations.

The Tioga Innovation & Invention Competition event is part of Tioga Drone Camp for Kids 2017.

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