A potential enhanced oil recovery technique is to inject alkali into a reservoir with a high-total acid number (TAN) crude to generate soap in situ and reduce interfacial tension (IFT) without the need to inject surfactant. The method may be cost-effective if the IFT can be lowered enough to cause significant mobilization of trapped oil while also avoiding formation of gels and viscous phases.

This paper investigates the potential field application of injecting alkali to generate in-situ soap and favorable phase behavior for a high-TAN oil. Oil analyses show that the acids in the crude are a complex mixture of various polar acids and not mainly carboxylic acids. The results from phase behavior experiments do not undergo typical Winsor microemulsion behavior transition and subsequent ultralow IFTs below 1×10−3 mN/m that are conventionally observed. Instead, mixing of alkali and crude/brine generate water-in-oil macroemulsions that can be highly viscous. For a specific range of alkali concentrations, however, phases are not too viscous, and IFTs are reduced by several orders of magnitude. Incremental coreflood recoveries in this alkali range are excellent, even though not all trapped oil is mobilized.

The viscous phase behavior at high alkali concentrations is explained by the formation of salt-crude complexes, created by acids from the crude oil under the alkali environment. These hydrophobic molecules tend to agglomerate at the oil-water interface. Together with polar components from the crude oil, they can organize into a highly viscous network and stabilize water droplets in the oleic phase. Oil-soluble alcohol was added to counter those two phenomena at large concentrations, but typical Winsor phase behavior was still not observed. A physicochemical model is proposed to explain the salt-crude complex formation at the oil-water interface that inhibits classical Winsor behavior.

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