The heavy-oil- and bitumen-recovery process by injection of a pure condensing solvent in a solvent vapor chamber provides an alternative to steam-based recovery techniques such as steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). Because of the lower operating temperature between 40 and 80°C, the process uses a much lower energy budget than a steam process and thus results in significantly reduced greenhouse-gas emissions. This paper describes the route to a successful production function with the physical processes at play and using analytical tools. Physical relationships are derived for the solvent/bitumen (S/B) ratio, the bitumen drainage from the roof of the solvent vapor chamber, and for bitumen extraction from both sides of the solvent chamber by the draining condensed solvent. The fast diffusion of bitumen into this narrow liquid solvent zone is likely subtly enhanced by transverse dispersion. The speed of bitumen extraction from the roof of the solvent vapor chamber is constrained by the gas/oil capillary pressure. Extraction from the side of the chamber is approximately three times faster by the action of the thin gravity-draining liquid solvent film. Several equations are provided to enable creation of a heat balance for this condensing solvent process.
Laboratory and field observations are matched, including the rates, the heat balance, and the S/B ratio. The model can explain constrained production performance by identifying the rate-limiting steps (e.g., when insufficient solvent condenses). The model predicts high solvent holdup during the rise of the solvent chamber. A method to estimate this solvent liquid saturation is provided. The S/B ratio depends on injector-wellbore heat losses, the (high) liquid saturation in the rising solvent chamber, and the process properties (operating temperature), reservoir properties (heat capacity, porosity, and oil saturation), and solvent properties (density and latent heat). In the existing body of literature, no satisfactory analytical model was available; this new approach helps to constrain production performance and to estimate solvent and heat requirements. The methods in this paper can be used in the future for subsurface project design and performance predictions.