Surfactant flooding has long been considered a reliable solution for enhanced oil recovery, either by reducing oil-water interfacial tension (IFT) or through wettability alteration. This paper reveals the effect that reduced IFT has on capillary trapping in heterogeneous reservoirs. This effect is investigated through various numerical experiments on different simulation models where rock capillary pressure is assumed to scale with IFT. Capillary contrast on the scale of a few centimeters to a few tens of meters is reduced in the presence of surfactants. This reduction in IFT, under very specific circumstances, creates favorable conditions for increased or accelerated hydrocarbon production from mixed-wet reservoirs. The focus of this study is to ascertain the effectiveness of surfactant flooding in mixed-wet reservoirs.

Simulation studies of different mechanisms which are believed to occur in mixed-wet reservoirs are presented. Simulation results indicate the promising effect of surfactant flooding on oil recovery, depending on the type of reservoir. Detailed fine-scale simulation studies are carried out with representative relative permeability and imbibition capillary pressure curves from mixed-wet cores. By designing and selecting a series of surfactants to lower the IFT to the range of 10-3dynes/cm, a recovery of 10 to 20% of the original oil-in-place is technically and economically feasible.

The efficiency of surfactant flooding is investigated through sensitivity scenarios on formation rock/fluid parameters, including permeability, interfacial tension, rate flow, etc. Geological heterogeneity (layering and heterogeneous inclusions), imbibition capillary pressure curves, viscous/capillary balance (Nc), and gravitational forces were all found to have an impact on recovery by surfactant flooding. Numerical model dimensions, permeability, IFT, density contrast between oil and water, and injection flow rates were found to be the critical parameters influencing simulation results.

Gravity segregation, typically ignored in earlier studies, was found to have a significant effect on reservoir performance. Two different numerical models, with and without impermeable shale streaks, were used to capture the gravity segregation effect. The results revealed that the reduction in interfacial tension helps gravity to segregate oil and water, ultimately resulting in improved oil recovery. Moreover, results from the numerical simulation studies revealed that either an inexpensive or a good quality surfactant at low concentration can be used to obtain the same enhanced oil recovery. The effect of change in oil relative permeability curvature, due to reduced interfacial tension, also revealed a reduction in the remaining oil saturation with an increase in the capillary number.

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