Buffer and Barrier Fluids

Buffer and barrier fluids play crucial roles in various industrial processes.

These specialized liquids maintain system stability, prevent contamination, and protect equipment.

In this blog post, we’ll dive deep into the world of buffer and barrier fluids, exploring their types, applications, and best practices.

Get ready to optimize your operations with this comprehensive guide.

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Dual Mechanical Seal Arrangements

In dual mechanical seal arrangements, two seals are used to provide enhanced protection against leakage and seal failure compared to single seals. There are two main types of dual seal setups: unpressurized and pressurized.

Buffer Fluids in Unpressurized Seals

With unpressurd dual seals, the cavity between the two seals is filled with a buffer fluid. The buffer fluid is maintained at a pressure lower than the process fluid. Its purpose is to act as a barrier between the process fluid and the atmosphere. If the inner seal leaks, the buffer fluid will prevent the process fluid from escaping to the environment.

Common API piping plans for unpressurized dual seals include Plan 52, which collects buffer fluid leakage in a reservoir, and Plan 72, which provides a continuously circulating buffer fluid system.

Barrier Fluids in Pressurized Seals

In pressurized dual seal arrangements, the cavity between the seals contains a barrier fluid that is kept at a pressure higher than the process fluid. The barrier fluid is the first line of defense, preventing process fluid from entering the seal cavity even if the inner seal fails. If any process fluid does leak past the inner seal, it will be pushed back by the higher pressure barrier fluid.

API piping plans for pressurized dual seals include Plan 53, with a pressurized barrier fluid reservoir, Plan 54, providing a pressurized external barrier fluid source, and Plans 55 and 74, which use a pressurized external reservoir with a bladder accumulator to maintain constant barrier fluid pressure.

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Properties and Characteristics of Effective Buffer/Barrier Fluids

  • Compatibility with Fluids and Seals: The buffer or barrier fluid must not react adversely with the process fluid or damage seal materials, ensuring system stability and longevity.
  • Lubricity and Heat Transfer: The fluid should minimize friction and wear, effectively transfer heat away from seal faces, and maintain optimal temperatures.
  • Temperature Stability: The fluid must remain stable across the system’s operating temperature range, avoiding degradation at high temperatures and maintaining fluidity at low temperatures.
  • Low Volatility and High Flash Point: Fluids should not vaporize at operating temperatures and must have a high flash point to prevent ignition, ensuring reliability and safety.
  • Resistance to Foaming and Gas Entrainment: Effective fluids should prevent foaming and gas accumulation, maintaining consistent properties and system stability.
  • Environmental and Safety Considerations: Preferably, fluids should be non-toxic, biodegradable, and safe, requiring no special handling or disposal, thus protecting personnel and the environment.

Types of Buffer and Barrier Fluids

Water and Glycol Solutions

Water and glycol solutions are widely employed as buffer and barrier fluids in industrial settings. These solutions typically consist of water mixed with glycols, such as ethylene glycol or propylene glycol.


  • Enhanced viscosity: Glycols increase water viscosity, maintaining a stable barrier between fluids, preventing mixing.
  • Improved lubrication: Higher glycol viscosity provides better equipment lubrication, reducing wear.
  • Lower freezing point: Glycols lower water freezing point, ideal for low-temperature environments.
  • Corrosion inhibition: Glycols act as corrosion inhibitors, protecting metal surfaces from degradation.


  • Reduced heat transfer: The increased viscosity of glycol solutions can limit their heat transfer capabilities compared to pure water.
  • Environmental concerns: Some glycols, such as ethylene glycol, can be toxic if released into the environment, requiring proper handling and disposal.
  • Compatibility issues: Certain materials, such as elastomers, may not be compatible with glycol solutions, leading to potential leaks or failures.

Typical Concentration Ranges

  • 30-50% glycol: This range is suitable for most applications, providing a good balance between viscosity, freezing point depression, and heat transfer properties.
  • 60-80% glycol: Higher concentrations are used in extreme low-temperature environments or when maximum freezing point depression is required.


In addition to glycols, buffer and barrier fluids often contain additives to enhance their performance and protect the system. Some common additives include:

  • Corrosion inhibitors: These additives help prevent corrosion of metal surfaces in contact with the fluid.
  • Anti-foaming agents: They reduce the formation of foam, which can impair the fluid’s performance and cause system issues.
  • Biocides: These additives prevent the growth of bacteria and other microorganisms that can degrade the fluid and cause fouling.

Petroleum-based Oils

Mineral Oils: Mineral oils are derived from crude oil through a refining process. They are the most commonly used buffer and barrier fluids due to their availability and cost-effectiveness.

Mineral oils have good lubricating properties and are compatible with a wide range of elastomers and sealing materials. However, they may have limitations in terms of thermal stability and oxidation resistance compared to synthetic hydrocarbons.

Synthetic Hydrocarbons: Synthetic hydrocarbons are manufactured using chemical processes to achieve specific performance characteristics. These fluids offer several advantages over mineral oils, including:

  • Improved thermal stability: Synthetic hydrocarbons can withstand higher temperatures without degrading, making them suitable for high-temperature applications.
  • Enhanced oxidation resistance: These fluids have a higher resistance to oxidation, which helps prevent the formation of sludge and deposits that can clog the system.
  • Better viscosity-temperature behavior: Synthetic hydrocarbons maintain their viscosity over a wider temperature range, ensuring consistent performance in varying operating conditions.


Viscosity is a measure of a fluid’s resistance to flow. In the context of petroleum-based oils, viscosity grades are determined by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and are expressed as ISO VG followed by a number.

For example, ISO VG 32 represents a lower viscosity oil, while ISO VG 220 represents a higher viscosity oil. The choice of viscosity grade depends on factors such as operating temperature, pressure, and the specific equipment in use.

Here are some common viscosity grades and their typical applications:

  • ISO VG 32 and 46: These low-viscosity oils are suitable for applications with low operating temperatures and pressures, such as hydraulic systems and compressors.
  • ISO VG 68 and 100: These medium-viscosity oils are commonly used in gearboxes, pumps, and other machinery operating at moderate temperatures and pressures.
  • ISO VG 150 and 220: These high-viscosity oils are ideal for applications with high operating temperatures and pressures, such as heavy-duty gearboxes and bearings.

In addition to viscosity, petroleum-based oils used as buffer and barrier fluids must possess other essential performance characteristics:

  • Thermal stability: The oil should maintain its properties and resist degradation at high temperatures.
  • Oxidation resistance: The oil should resist oxidation, which can lead to the formation of sludge and varnish, reducing the oil’s effectiveness.
  • Compatibility: The oil must be compatible with the materials it comes in contact with, such as seals, gaskets, and coatings, to prevent leaks and damage.
  • Demulsibility: The oil should be able to separate quickly from water to maintain its performance and prevent corrosion.
  • Foam resistance: The oil should have good foam resistance to prevent the formation of air bubbles, which can reduce lubrication efficiency and cause damage to equipment.

Synthetic Fluids Designed for Mechanical Seals

Polyalkylene Glycols (PAG): Polyalkylene Glycols, or PAGs, are synthetic lubricants known for their excellent stability and performance in a wide range of temperatures. They are derived from the reaction of ethylene oxide or propylene oxide with water or alcohol.

PAGs possess high viscosity indexes, meaning they maintain their lubricating properties across a broad temperature range. This characteristic makes them ideal for applications where seals are exposed to varying temperatures. Moreover, PAGs exhibit good compatibility with various seal materials, reducing the risk of seal degradation over time.

Perfluoropolyethers (PFPE): Perfluoropolyethers, abbreviated as PFPEs, are highly specialized synthetic fluids that offer unparalleled chemical inertness and thermal stability. These fluids are composed of carbon, oxygen, and fluorine atoms, forming a unique polymer structure.

PFPEs are resistant to aggressive chemicals, making them suitable for use in harsh environments where seals may come into contact with corrosive substances. Additionally, PFPEs have a low evaporation rate and can withstand extremely high temperatures, ensuring reliable performance in demanding applications.

Phosphate Esters: Phosphate Esters are synthetic fluids derived from the reaction of alcohols with phosphoric acid. These fluids possess excellent lubricating properties and are known for their ability to form protective films on seal surfaces.

Phosphate Esters have a high resistance to oxidation and thermal degradation, making them suitable for use in high-temperature applications. They also exhibit good compatibility with various seal materials and can help prevent the buildup of deposits and varnish on seal surfaces.

Other Fluids (Alcohols, Diesel, Kerosene, Heat Transfer Fluids)

Alcohols (Methanol or Ethanol): Used as buffer or barrier fluids where low temperatures are required, these fluids have lower freezing points than water, making them ideal for cold environments.

Diesel and Kerosene: Employed as barrier fluids in the oil and gas industry, especially in drilling operations. These fluids are compatible with reservoir hydrocarbons and help maintain well integrity. However, they are flammable and can pose environmental risks if not managed properly.

Heat Transfer Fluids (Glycol-based Solutions or Thermal Oils): Utilized as barrier fluids in applications requiring heat management or transfer. These fluids have high heat capacities and can effectively transfer heat away from critical components, commonly used in chemical processing, oil and gas, and power generation industries.

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Fluid Selection Criteria

  • Compatibility with Process Fluids: Ensure the buffer or barrier fluid does not adversely react, contaminate, or degrade when in contact with the process fluids.
  • Compatibility with Sealing Materials: The fluid should be compatible with system sealing materials to prevent swelling, shrinking, or degradation of seals.
  • Temperature and Pressure Range: Select a fluid that remains stable and effective across the system’s temperature and pressure conditions.
  • Viscosity and Lubricity: Choose a fluid with appropriate viscosity to provide adequate lubrication and prevent excessive friction or wear.
  • Environmental and Safety Considerations: Opt for environmentally safe, non-toxic, and biodegradable fluids in line with regulations and safety standards.
  • Cost and Availability: Consider the cost, availability, and overall cost of ownership of the fluid, factoring in life expectancy and maintenance.
  • Compatibility with System Materials: The fluid must not corrode, soften, or degrade any system materials, ensuring long-term reliability.


How Often Should Buffer and Barrier Fluids Be Changed

It is generally recommended to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for your specific system, which typically suggest changing these fluids every 1 to 2 years or as needed based on system performance and fluid condition.

What Are Common Issues Faced with Buffer and Barrier Fluids

Common issues include contamination, temperature fluctuations, and pressure variances, all of which can lead to seal failures.

What Steps Should Be Taken If a Seal Failure Is Suspected Due to Fluid Issues

Inspect the fluid for signs of contamination or degradation, check fluid levels and pressures, and examine the mechanical seal for wear or damage. Replace the fluid and repair or replace the seal as necessary.


In conclusion, buffer and barrier fluids play a crucial role in maintaining well control and ensuring safe drilling operations.

Implementing the right fluid strategy can significantly enhance well integrity and minimize potential risks.

Take action now to optimize your fluid selection and safeguard your drilling projects.

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