A critical clue to an oil field mystery found in a surprising place

It was a cold case, a 25-year-old mystery even the best minds in the business had not cracked.

But about a year ago, an unusual group of detectives — all experienced Ecolab chemists, one team in Sugar Land, Texas, the other 1,200 miles north in Eagan, Minn. — came together. Their mission: Solve the case others considered “impossible” by developing a formula to keep oil field chemicals from freezing — and thereby failing to keep lines free of waxy build‑up that slows oil’s flow — when temperatures plunge.

If successful, the Ecolab detectives could make a big impact: They could help improve efficiency in hundreds of oil fields in extreme environments — and if they acted quickly, they could ensure that Ecolab would be first with a solution.

Over nearly nine months, in weekly conference calls and meetings, with emails flying almost non-stop, they pored over evidence, recalled old cases, built theories and tested ideas. The two teams had never met — and they came at the problem from different angles. One group focused on nudging molecules to perform as needed, the other on the magic of chemical interactions. But trust between them grew — and with it, their collaboration strengthened.

So much so that by September, the case was solved. The break came when someone brought up, of all things, the chemistry of floor care products.

By November, the new solution was on its way to oil fields in the Northern Hemisphere. For operators in extreme conditions, the new solution — tested effective from -40 Fahrenheit to 160 Fahrenheit — addressed a huge and costly problem. And for Ecolab, it opened a large opportunity to help customers keep oil flowing through the coldest winter days — and continue to use the same products through the hottest days of summer.

The case began when oil field chemical companies first introduced chemical agents known as “paraffin inhibitors” in the 1990s, said Jose Macias, director, Research, Development & Engineering, Energy Services Flow Assurance.

Most of the year, the paraffin inhibitors performed as they were supposed to, Jose recalled. But when the temperature took a deep dive, the inhibitors froze. They either had to be warmed on site — or diluted with cold-resistant solvents, which meant higher inhibitor dosages were needed to prevent paraffin build-up. Neither was cost-effective. Oil field operators came to accept a costly reality: In deep winter, they would have to shut down frequently to remove paraffin from their lines.

It was a situation that didn’t sit well with our Energy Services business or with David Fouchard, then a staff scientist in the Flow Assurance research and development group.

“We knew the solution was going to require a combination of new chemistry and new formulation,” David said. “Our team in Sugar Land has expertise in synthetic chemistry — creating molecules with the right properties — and profound understanding of oil field challenges. And the team in Eagan has deep expertise in formulation.”

“Formulation chemists,” said Eagan-based senior staff scientist Kim Solomon, “are interested in chemical interactions — putting things together to get synergy or improvement from the interaction. Ecolab’s work over the years has been focused on the interaction of chemicals. A lot of the Energy Services team’s work has been on finding the right molecule. So this was a beautiful combination.”

“We solved a tough challenge, but I think the way we collaborated to solve it is just as important.”
Andrea Lawton, Customer Insights Manager

Echoes of “impossible” lingered, but the team wasn’t listening.

“When someone tells you something’s impossible, that’s a red flag that the question might need to be reframed,” said Kim. “We noticed that the polymer we were working with was forming crystals, instead of a solid, under extreme cold. I knew from past work that floor finishes have pretty much the same problem with crystallization. And the way we overcome it in floor care is by adding a plasticizer — a substance that interferes with a molecule’s ability to interact with another to form crystals.”

The team tested a number of adjuvents with different polymers. All of them worked. In the end, the team developed six paraffin inhibitors with new technologies.

“This project was the toughest one I’ve been on in 36 years in the industry,” said Kim. “But we had a team of experienced people who worked very well together, exchanging ideas in almost real time and trusting each other to do good work.”

In addition to Jose, David and Kim, synthetic chemists Tom Painter and Kousik Kundu in Sugar Land and Eagan-based formulation chemists Jennifer Stokes and Carter Silvernail, who also acted as project manager for the Eagan team, were major contributors.

“Our extremely different areas of expertise turned out to be very complementary,” said David. “In Sugar Land, we may have gotten to a solution eventually, but it would have taken a lot longer. Having access to the knowledge in Eagan really sped things up.”

As the new product made its debut in Northern Hemisphere oil and gas fields this winter, Phillip Davis, Energy Services’ Paraffin Global marketing manager, heard positive reports. “Without this product our lines would eventually plug off,” one Canadian production engineer told Phillip. “Winterization is the difference maker. I haven’t seen any other winterized products that perform as well.”