The cement sheath is one of the most important well barrier elements in the well, both during production and after abandonment. However, normal production operations which involve temperature variations in the well, such as steam injection, stimulations and shut-down periods, may damage the integrity of the cement sheath. Temperature increase and decrease, i.e. thermal cycling, cause the casing to expand and contract, which creates debonding and cracking of the cement sheath and thereby loss of zonal isolation.

This paper presents novel results from an experimental study of cement sheath integrity during thermal cycling. The temperature was cycled repeatedly from 5 °C to 125 °C in a controlled manner from inside the casing, and Portland cement with silica additive was tested with both sandstone and shale as surrounding rock. Debonding and cracking of cement were quantified and visualized by X-ray computed tomography (CT), and it was found that cracking and debonding occurred for the sandstone sample, whereas the shale sample remained almost unaffected. There were some initial defects in the cement sheath in the sandstone sample, and these small and scattered defects grew together during thermal cycling into a continuous leak path; i.e. resulting in a loss of zonal isolation.

The digitalized 3D geometry of this leak path was imported into Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) software, thereby enabling a unique visualization of fluid flow through an actual leak path in degraded cement and an estimation of leak rates for different pressure differences. It is seen that microannuli are not homogeneous or uniform, and that fluid flow through microannuli and cracks is complex and not easily predictable.

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