Inventing the Electric Submersible Pump
Today’s petroleum industry owes a lot to Armais Sergeevich Arutunoff.
With the help of a prominent Oklahoma oil company president, he built the first practical electric submersible pumps (ESPs) – and revolutionized production from America’s oilfields.
A 1936 Tulsa World article described his downhole pump as “an electric motor with the proportions of a slim fencepost which stands on its head at the bottom of a well and kicks oil to the surface with its feet.”
By 1938, an estimated two percent of all the oil produced in the United States with artifical lift, was lifted by an Arutunoff pump.
According to an October 2014 article in the Journal of Petroleum Technology, the first patent for an oil-related electric pump was issued in 1894 to Harry Pickett. His invention used a downhole rotary electric motor with “a Yankee screwdriver device to drive a plunger pump.”
More than two decades later, Robert Newcomb received a 1918 patent for his “electro-magnetic engine” driving a reciprocating plunger pump. “Heretofore, in very deep wells the rod that is connected to the piston, and generally known as the ‘sucker’ rod, very often breaks on account of its great length and strains imposed thereon in operating the piston,” notes Newcomb in his patent application.
Although several patents followed those of Picket and Newcomb, the Journal reports, “it was not until 1926 that the first patent for a commercial, operatable ESP was issued – to ESP piorneer Armais Arutunoff. The cable used to supply power to the bottomhole unit was also invented by Arutunoff.”
Russian Electrical Dynamo of Arutunoff
Arutunoff built his first ESP in 1916 in Germany, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society. “Suspended by steel cables, it was dropped down the well casing into oil or water and turned on, creating a suction that would lift the liquid to the surface formation through pipes,” notes historian Dianna Everett.
After immigrating to the United States in 1923, in California Arutunoff could not find financial support for manufacturing his pump design. He moved to Bartlesville, Oklahoma, in 1928 at the urging of a new friend – Frank Phillips, head of Phillips Petroleum Company.
“With Phillips’s backing, he refined his pump for use in oil wells and first successfully demonstrated it in a well in Kansas,” says Everett. The device was manufactured by a small company that soon became Reda Pump.
The name Reda – Russian Electrical Dynamo of Arutunoff – was the cable address of the company that Arutunoff originally started in Germany. The inventor would move his family into a Bartlesville mansion across the street from Phillips.
A holder of more than 90 patents in the United States, Arutunoff was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1974. “Try as I may, I cannot perform services of such value to repay this wonderful country for granting me sanctuary and the blessings of freedom and citizenship,” he said at the time.
Arutunoff died in February 1978 in Bartlesville. At the end of the twentieth century, Reda was the world’s largest manufacturer of ESP systems. It is now part of Schlumberger.
Son of a Soap Maker
Armais Sergeevich Arutunoff was born to Armenian parents in Tiflis, part of the Russian Empire, on June 21, 1893. His home town, in the Caucasus Mountains between the Caspian and Black Sea, dated back to the 5th Century.
According to an online electrical submersible pump history at ESP Pump, his father was a soap manufacturer and his grandfather a fur trader. In his youth, Arutunoff lived in Erivan (now Yerevan) the capital of Armenia.
ESP Pump, which includes a profile of his extensive scientific career, says Arutunoff’s research convinced him that electrical transmission of power could be efficiently applied to oil drilling and improve the antiquated methods he saw in use in the early 1900s in Russia.
“To do this, a small, yet high horsepower electric motor was needed,” ESP Pump explains. “The limitation imposed by available casing sizes made it necessary that the motor be relatively small.”
However, a motor of small diameter would necessarily be too low in horsepower. “Such a motor would be inadequate for the job he had in mind so he studied the fundamental laws of electricity to find the basis for the answer to the question of how to build a higher horsepower motor exceedingly small in diameter,” explains ESP Power.
By 1916, Arutunoff was designing a centrifugal pump to be coupled to the motor for de-watering mines and ships. To develop enough power it was necessary the motor run at very high speeds. He successfully designed a centrifugal pump, small in diameter and with stages to achieve high discharge pressure.
“In his design, the motor was ingeniously installed below the pump to cool the motor with flow moving up the oil well casing, and the entire unit was suspended in the well on the discharge pipe,” ESP Pump says. “The motor, sealed from the well fluid, operated at high speed in an oil bath.”
Upside Down Well Motor
Although Arutunoff built the first centrifugal pump while living in Germany, he built the first submersible pump and motor in the United States while living in Los Angeles.
“Before coming to the U.S. he had formed a small company of his own, called Reda, to manufacture his idea for electric submersible motors,” notes ESP Pump. “He later settled in Germany and then came with his wife and one-year-old daughter to the United States to settle in Michigan, then Los Angeles.”
However, after emigrating to America in 1923, Arutunoff could not find financial support for his down-hole production technology. Everyone he approached turned him down, saying the unit was “impossible under the laws of electronics.”
No one would consider his inventions until friends at Phillips Petroleum Company in Bartlesville encouraged him to form his own company there.
In 1928 Arutunoff moved to Bartlesville, where formed Bart Manufacturing Company, which changed its same to the Reda Pump Company in 1930. He soon demonstrated a working model of an oilfield electric submersible pump.
One of his pump-and-motor devices was installed in an oil well in the El Dorado field near Burns, Kansas – the first equipment of its kinds to be used in a well. One reporter telegraphed his editor, “Please rush good pictures showing oil well motors that are upside down.”
By end of the 1930s Arutunoff’s company held dozens of patents for industrial equipment, leading to decades of success and even more patents. His “Electrodrill” aided scientists in penetrating the Antarctic ice cap for the first time in 1967.
“Arutunoff’s ESP oilfield technology quickly had a significant impact on the oil business,” concludes ESP Pump. “His pump was crucial to the successful production over the years of hundreds of thousands of oil wells.”
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