This study investigates the role of polar fractions of heavy oil in the surfactant-steamflooding process. Performance analyses of this process were done by examination of the dipole-dipole and ion-ion interactions between the polar head group of surfactants and the charged polar fraction of crude oil, namely, asphaltenes.

Surfactants are designed to reduce the interfacial tension (IFT) between two immiscible fluids (such as oil and water) and effectively used for oil recovery. They reduce the IFT by aligning themselves at the interface of these two immiscible fluids; this way, their polar head group can stay in water and nonpolar tail can stay in the oil phase. However, in heavy oil, the crude oil itself has a high number of polar components (mainly asphaltenes). Moreover, the polar head group in surfactants is charged, and the asphaltene fraction of crude oils carries reservoir rock components with charges. The impact of these intermolecular forces on the surfactant-steam process performance was investigated with 10 coreflood experiments on an extraheavy crude oil. Nine surfactants (three anionic, three cationic, and three nonionic surfactants) were tested. Results of each coreflood test were analyzed through cumulative oil recovery and residual oil content. The performance differences were evaluated by polarity determination through dielectric constant measurements and by ionic charges through zeta potential measurements on asphaltene fractions of produced oil and residual oil samples.

The differences in each group of surfactants tested in this study are the tail length. Results indicate that a longer hydrocarbon tail yielded higher cumulative oil recovery. Based on the charge groups present in the polar head of anionic surfactants resulted in higher oil recovery. Further examinations on asphaltenes from produced and residual oils show that the dielectric constants of asphaltenes originated from the produced oil, giving higher polarity for surfactant-steam experiments conducted with longer tail length, which provide information on the polarity of asphaltenes. The ion-ion interaction between produced oil asphaltenes and surfactant head groups were determined through zeta potential measurements. For the most successful surfactant-steam processes, these results showed that the changes on asphaltene surface charges were becoming lower with the increase in oil recovery, which indicates that once asphaltenes are interacting more with the polar head of surfactants, then the recovery rate increases.

Our study shows that the surfactant-steamflooding performance in heavy oil reservoirs is controlled by the interaction between asphaltenes and the polar head group of surfactants. Accordingly, the main mechanism that controls the effectiveness of the process is the ion-ion interaction between the charges in asphaltene surfaces and the polar head group of crude oils. Because crude oils carry mostly negatively charged reservoir rock particles, our study suggests the use of anionic surfactants for the extraction of heavy oils.

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