Scientists Say 'Smart Water' May Aid Oil Recovery

Tuesday, March 3, 2020 - 10:22

Scientists at Rice University's Brown School of Engineering have discovered that microscopic saltwater droplets emulsify crude oil when each has the right composition.

According to the Phys.org report, Rice chemical and biological engineer Sibani Lisa Biswal and her colleagues went to great lengths to characterize the three elements most important to oil recovery: rock, water and the crude itself.

They confirmed wells are more productive when water with the right salt concentration is carefully matched to both the oil and the rock, carbonate or sandstone formation. If the low-salinity brine can create emulsion droplets in a specific crude, the brine appears to also alter the wettability of the rock. The wettability determines how easily the rock will release oil.

Co-lead author Jin Song said the first hints of seawater's effect came from wells in the North Sea. "Oil companies found that when they injected seawater, which has relatively low salinity, oil recovery was surprisingly good," he said.

Even with that understanding, he said research has been limited. "Usually in the oil and gas industry, when they're looking into low-salinity water, they tend to focus on the effect of the brine and ignore the effect of the oil," said Song, who earned his Ph.D. at Rice this year and is now a researcher at Shell.

"So people haven't been able to find a good indicator or any correlation between the effectiveness of low-salinity water and experimental conditions," he said. "Our work is the first to identify some of the properties of the oil that indicate how effective this technique can be in a specific field.

The team's work appears in the open-access Nature journal Scientific Reports.

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