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Some Projects Currently (2006) Underway in Heavy Oil Research Laboratories

by Franklin L. Foster, Ph.D.
[note: this article made possible by support and funding from the Petroleum Society of CIM, Lloydminster Section]

     1. For some years now, the "hot" technique for producing reluctant Heavy Oil has been Cold Production.  This process involves, in part, lifting sand bearing heavy oil to the surface via progressing cavity pumps before extracting the oil from the sand.  Despite its success and popularity in the field of Cold Production, we lack a solid theoretical understanding of what's going on.  Therefore, we have difficulty optimizing the processes or dealing with the problems encountered.

     For example, extracting large quantities of sand, in which there is both oil and water, can produce instabilities in the formation where some sand flows into the well and other sand remains firm in the formation.  These channels of flowing sand produce what are called "wormholes".

Photo of wormhole in formation - courtesy of the Alberta Research Council

     How these wormholes are produced, and what challenges and opportunities they represent are currently questions that are being studied.

     2. Cold Production can remove as little as 10 % of the petroleum in a deposit.  How do we recover the remainder?  One technique is to inject solvents such as a methane/propane mixture into a well to reduce the viscosity and establish pressure.  Usually there is a cycle of injection and production from the same well.  The ratio of injection to production is one variable that can be studied.  As well, various solvents may perform differently.  Laboratory experiments and field testing has revealed that one solvent may add as little as 5 % additional production while another may produce 20 % or more - a significant difference. 

     3. Yet another technique is to heat the reluctant oil by an actual combustion process in the underground formation.  How to best initiate, maintain and optimize combustion are huge questions.  Again, some cycling of combustion and production may be produce the best results.  What technology and process will allow this?

     4. Safety and environmental concerns both urge the detection and measurement of gases; whether these are vent gases from a producing well, or gases from a storage or treating facility.  Again, the laboratory is the place to develop and test the necessary instrumentation and compile data that will help inform decisions about safety and environmental guidelines.

     With future production methods likely to become even more complex, the need for ongoing. state-of-the-art research in both laboratory and field settings will play a crucial role in helping Heavy Oil meet our energy needs in the years ahead.