Increasing oil production by injection of designer water – also known as low salinity water – into a reservoir has recently attracted substantial attention from the oil producing community. The phenomenon has been studied by many researchers and low salinity water flooding is currently being applied in the field. On a macroscopic level, the effect can be parameterized as effective wettability modification to a more water-wet state but on a microscopic level, the effect is still not very well understood.

Most researchers agree that in sandstone rock, the mechanism is related to clay minerals but most of the experimental evidence is provided on the macroscopic scale (core flooding experiments) or even the field scale. Observations are not fully consistent and the predictability of the effect is limited. In a preceding publication [Petrophysics 2010, 51(5), 314–322] direct experimental evidence was provided for the detachment of oil droplets from a clay substrate upon exposure to low salinity brine.

The brine salinity for designer water flooding falls within a narrow window of opportunity: when too high, no additional oil production is observed; when too low, clay swelling and/or deflocculation may result in formation damage in the field. This raises the question whether there is a regime where oil is released with no or only minor formation damage and what the optimum salinity level for this would be. In this follow-up study, experiments are conducted on montmorillonite clay (which is a swelling clay belonging to the group of smectite clays) where the amount of released oil and the degree of formation damage are studied as a function of the salinity level. Starting at very high salinity (26,000 mg/L totally dissolved solids, TDS) no release of oil was observed and the clays remained stable. At very low salinity (2,000 mg/L TDS), up to 30% of the oil was released accompanied by substantial formation damage. There is, however, an intermediate salinity regime between 6,000 and 15,000 mg/L TDS where the formation damage is only very minor or not visible at all and still 10-30% of the initially attached oil is released. This is the regime of interest for field applications, although salinity levels have to be evaluated for the type of clay present in the formation rock.

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