Unconventional shale oil resources have emerged as a significant source of fossil fuels in recent years. The oil contained in shales is held in natural microfractures, micropores, and inside nanopores of the organic matter. The strong capillary forces in these pores can bind the oil to the surface with strengths that are inversely proportional to the pore radius. In order to recover more oil from these pores, it is beneficial to reduce the capillary pressure by manipulating the interfacial tension and contact angle of oil/brine/shale systems using surfactant solutions. The main consideration in surfactant flooding is to optimize brine salinity and surfactant concentration while minimizing their adsorption on rock surfaces. Although the effect of some surfactants on recovery in shale oil reservoirs has been studied in the past, the mechanism is still unclear. Moreover, the limited data available in the literature is not representative of the actual reservoir conditions.

The objective of this study is to elucidate the oil displacement mechanisms in shale oil by surfactant flooding. The phase behavior of several anionic surfactants was studied in the presence of crude oil at reservoir temperature (i.e. 80 °C). The results of these tests were used to screen the best surfactants. Dynamic interfacial tensions (IFT) and contact angles (CA) of selected surfactant-in-brine/oil/shale systems were measured by the rising/captive bubble technique using a state-of-the-art IFT/CA apparatus. The apparatus was thoroughly validated with various systems using the axisymmetric drop shape analysis technique. Using the same methodology, the effects of surfactant concentration (0.01 to 0.1 wt%) and brine salinity (0.1 to 5 M NaCl) on IFT and CA at ambient and reservoir conditions (i.e. 80 °C and 3000 psig) were studied. Surfactant adsorption on shale samples was also measured in brines at ambient conditions. Our data reveal that the most effective surfactant was able to reduce the oil-brine IFT from its original value (23 mN/m) down to 0.3 mN/m at reservoir condition. A reduction in the IFT value and an increase in the dynamic contact angle of oil drop on polished shale surface were observed with the addition of surfactant and salt to the system. A trend between these parameters, pressure, and temperature was also reported.

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