A laboratory study of cryogenic fracturing was performed to test its ability to improve oil/gas recovery from low-permeability reservoirs. Our objective is to develop well-stimulation technologies using cryogenic fluids [e.g., liquid nitrogen (LN)] to increase permeability in a large reservoir volume surrounding wells. The new technology has the potential to reduce formation damage caused by current stimulation methods and minimize or eliminate water usage.
The concept of cryogenic fracturing is that a sharp thermal gradient (thermal shock) created at the surfaces of formation rocks by applying cryogenic fluid can cause strong local tensile stress and start fractures. We developed a laboratory system for cryogenic fracturing under true-triaxial loading, with LN-delivery/control and -measurement systems. The loading system simulates confining stresses by independently loading each axis up to approximately 5,000 psi on 8×8×8-in. cubes. Temperature in boreholes and at block surfaces and fluid pressure in boreholes were continuously monitored. Acoustic and pressure-decay measurements were obtained before and at various stages of stimulations. Cubic blocks (8 × 8×8-in.) of Niobrara shale, concrete, and sandstones were tested, and stress levels and anisotropies varied. Three schemes were considered: gas fracturing without cryo-stimulation, gas fracturing after low-pressure cryogen flow-through, and gas fracturing after high-pressure cryogen flow-through.
Results from pressure-decay tests show that LN stimulation clearly increases permeability, and repeated stimulations further increase the permeability. Acoustic velocities and amplitudes decreased significantly after cryo-stimulation, indicating fracture creation. In the gas fracturing without the stimulation, breakdown (complete fracturing) occurs suddenly without any initial leaking, and major fracture planes form along the plane containing principal-stress and intermediate-stress directions, as expected theoretically. However, in the gas fracturing after cryogenic stimulations, breakdown occurred gradually and with massive leaking because of thermal fractures created during stimulation. In addition, the major fracture direction does not necessarily follow the plane containing the principal-stress direction, especially at low confining-stress levels. In tests, we observed that cryogenic stimulation seems to disrupt the internal stress field. The increase in borehole temperature after stimulation affects the permeability of the specimen. When a stimulated specimen is still cold, it maintains high permeability because fractures remain open and local thermal tension is maintained near the borehole. When the rock warms back, fractures close and permeability decreases. In these tests, we have not used proppants. Overall, fractures are clearly generated by low- and high-pressure thermal shocks. The added pressure of the high-pressure thermal shocks helps to further propagate cryogenic fractures generated by thermal shock. Breakdown pressure is significantly lowered by LN stimulation, with observed breakdown-pressure reductions up to approximately 40%.