Insights into Non-Thermal Recovery of Heavy Oil

Mai, A., Bryan, J., Goodarzi, N. and Kantzas, A.

DOI: 10.2118/09-03-27
Paper 2006-553, 1st World Heavy Oil Conference, Beijing China, November 2006;
CIM 2006-553;
Journal of Canadian Petroleum Technology 48(03), March 2009, Pages 27-35


Many heavy oil reservoirs contain oil that has some limited mobility under reservoir conditions. In these reservoirs, a small fraction of the oil-in-place can be recovered using the internal reservoir energy through heavy oil solution gas drive (primary production). An integral part of this process is the so-called ‘foamy oil mechanism’, whereby oil is produced as a gas-in-oil dispersion. At the end of primary production, the bulk of the oil is still in place, while the natural energy of the reservoir has been depleted. This remaining oil is still mostly continuous and presents a valuable target for further recovery. Many of these reservoirs are relatively small or thin, or may be contacted by overlying gas or underlying water. As such, they are poor candidates for thermal oil recovery methods, so any additional oil recovery after primary production must be non-thermal. In this work, we present experimental results of foamy oil depletion at two different length scales and varying depletion rates. Tests were conducted in the absence of sand production, and the results from the depletion experiments are interpreted in terms of viscous forces. At the conclusion of primary recovery, the potential for further non-thermal exploitation of these reservoirs is explored. Results for waterflooding and chemical flooding are presented, demonstrating the viability of these techniques for heavy oil EOR. Several displacement mechanisms are identified through the secondary and tertiary processes that contribute to significant (although potentially slow) incremental recovery of heavy oil.


Many countries have heavy oil reservoirs. Canada and Venezuela in particular contain some of the largest heavy oil and bitumen resources in the world. Rising energy demands, coupled with a decline in conventional oil reserves, has led to increased interest in heavy oil recovery in recent years. The size of these heavy oil deposits is considerable, and with volatile crude oil prices making it difficult to produce from some higher viscosity bitumen reservoirs, production of heavy oil could potentially be very important in years to come. Understanding the mechanisms by which heavy oil can be displaced in reservoirs is crucial to the successful recovery of this resource base.

Heavy oil can be defined as a class of oils with viscosity ranging from 50 mPa.s up to around 50,000 mPa.s. This oil has limited mobility under reservoir temperature and pressure, and Darcy’s Law predicts that the oil can flow slowly under high applied pressure gradients. However, it has been observed that in these reservoirs, solution gas drive leads to significantly higher rates and recoveries than what was expected by conventional understanding of gas-oil relative permeability behaviour(1). This behaviour, first reported in Canadian heavy oil, has since been observed in many other reservoirs around the world including South America, China and Albania. Investigations into the causes of this abnormal, but fortuitous, primary production response have been the focus of many publications in the past 25 years.

The recovery from primary production in heavy oil reservoirs may be as high as 20%(2), but is usually lower.

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