The research committee of the Gas Processors Association takes a holistic view to research, according to speakers at the recently held Gas Processors Association conference. The committee is looking for topics of interest and value to all members—everything from processing natural gas to delivering liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) to the market.

Dr. Karl Gerdes serves the GPA as chairman of the Technical Section F committee, also known as the research committee. The committee has two sub groups which define and manage projects that make up the GPA's globally-recognized cooperative research program.

Volunteers from the GPA and Gas Processors Suppliers Association (GPSA) member companies make up the committee, which defines the scope of each research project and the budget available for the work. The committee draws up requests for proposals (RFP), which are then sent to a set of potential research contractors that the committee feels could perform the work.

A key partner in the GPA research program is the Propane Education and Research Council (PERC), which is funding about half of the research budget. PERC was authorized by Congress in 1996. The activities of PERC are funded by a small levy on each gallon of propane at the point it is odorized or imported into the U.S. The council is a 21-member board made up of nine representatives each from the National Propane Gas Association and the GPA, along with three members of the public.

But PERC's participation in the GPA research program goes beyond funding. Its presence means that the scope of the research program covers the complete value chain from processing natural gas to delivering LPG to the customer.

The more holistic view enables the program to define the scope of a research project to efficiently study conditions that apply to processing, storage and transport rather than just to one segment, for example. Beyond that, the joint funding of the research program simply enables more quality information to be made available to the industry in a shorter time, Gerdes said.

The 2012 research budget is $565,000, of which $265,000 is paid by the members and $300,000 is paid by PERC. Under the old model, the typical funding per year for an individual research project was about $50,000. "Today, the typical funding is $125,000 per year for each project," he said.

The total number of projects under way is diminishing as the inventory of older projects is worked off. There were five projects approved by the board for 2012.

In addition, there are two ongoing projects—one to maintain a database of the GPA data and one to prepare new material arising from the research program for the GPSA data book. Beyond that, there are 15 projects that have been completely funded and are still ongoing.

The GPA research program benefits each member company. The research leads to more efficient, lower-cost processing equipment and more reliable operations to make on-spec products. "The GPA has always been about collaboration and sharing of information to benefit the industry as a whole," Gerdes said.

Two years ago, GPA shifted research funding from a separate, balloted mechanism, in which only companies voting in favor of the research paid for it, to inclusion of research in the membership dues of all members. The new structure ensures that all members carry a fair share of the midstream industry's investment in research to keep it as a viable enterprise in a changing energy marketplace.

The volunteers who make up the research committee have spent entire weekends in meetings to manage existing projects and to define new ones for the benefit of the industry. In addition, they meet for another couple of days in the fall.

A few years ago, GPA changed its funding approach to research projects—opting to fund fewer projects at a higher yearly budget. This was a recognition of the changing nature of the researcher providers. Years ago, much of the research was carried out by universities, and a more leisurely pace was suited to the use of graduate students to perform the research in the course of earning their degrees, Gerdes said.

Today, a much larger proportion of its research is done by commercial entities, which prefer to gear up and complete work in a shorter time frame. As a result, the GPA now funds fewer projects at a higher dollar cost and a shorter time frame.

"We find that we are getting more consistent responses to our proposals and from several potential providers," he said.

The research committee subgroups meet twice per year. Each contractor provides a written report on progress for these meetings. In addition, many of the contractors report in person at combined committee meeting that coincides with the annual convention, Gerdes said.

The research projects can range from one year to several years. Under the old funding model, it was not unusual for a project to take five years, once the contract was in place. With higher yearly budgets, more recent projects take two to three years, he said. The new methodology results in about four to six final reports published for all members.

The nature of the research is typically to measure very basic data needed to describe some phenomenon that is dealt with in the gas processing industry.

For example, when high pressure, sour gas is treated to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) and hydrogen sulfide (H2S) in an amine plant, some of the amine solvent will vaporize and be carried away by the treated gas, he said. How much? Knowing how much can enable a plant owner to add a system to recover solvent, if it's significant value, or enable an operator to judge whether observed losses might be due to entrainment of liquid droplets, rather than just vaporization losses, and take steps to minimize those losses.

"That's a long-winded way of saying that most of the interpretation of the research occurs later," he said.

When he is not volunteering for the GPA, Gerdes is a consulting engineer in the Natural Gas Technology Process Engineering Division of Chevron Energy Technology Co. in Richmond, California.