Role of fluid elasticity and viscous instabilities in proppant transport in hydraulic fractures

Malhotra, Sahil
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This dissertation presents an experimental investigation of fluid flow, proppant settling and horizontal proppant transport in hydraulic fractures. The work is divided into two major sections: investigation of proppant settling in polymer-free surfactant-based viscoelastic (VES) fluids and development of a new method of proppant injection, referred to as Alternate-Slug fracturing.

VES fluid systems have been used to eliminate polymer-based damage and to efficiently transport proppant into the fracture. Current models and correlations neglect the important influence of fracture walls and fluid elasticity on proppant settling. Experimental data is presented to show that elastic effects can increase or decrease the settling velocity of particles, even in the creeping flow regime. Experimental data shows that significant drag reduction occurs at low Weissenberg number, followed by a transition to drag enhancement at higher Weissenberg numbers. A new correlation is presented for the sphere settling velocity in unbounded viscoelastic fluids as a function of the fluid rheology and the proppant properties.

The wall factors for sphere settling velocities in viscoelastic fluids confined between solid parallel plates (fracture walls) are calculated from experimental measurements made on these fluids over a range of Weissenberg numbers. Results indicate that elasticity reduces the retardation effect of the confining walls and this reduction is more pronounced at higher ratios of the particle diameter to spacing between the walls. Shear thinning behavior of fluids is also observed to reduce the retardation effect of the confining walls. A new empirical correlation for wall factors for spheres settling in a viscoelastic fluid confined between two parallel walls is presented.

An experimental study on proppant placement using a new method of fracturing referred to as Alternate-Slug fracturing is presented. This method involves alternate injection of low viscosity and high viscosity fluids into the fracture, with proppant pumped in the low viscosity fluid. Experiments are conducted in Hele-Shaw cells to study the growth of viscous fingers over a wide range of viscosity ratios. Data is presented to show that the viscous finger velocities and mixing zone velocities increase with viscosity ratio up to viscosity ratios of about 350 and the trend is consistent with Koval’s theory. However, at higher viscosity ratios the mixing zone velocity values plateau signifying no further effect of viscosity contrast on the growth of fingers and mixing zone. The plateau in the velocities at high viscosity ratios is caused by an increase in the thickness of the displacing fluid and a reduction in the thin film of the displaced fluid on the walls of the Hele-Shaw cell.

Fluid elasticity is observed to retard the growth of fingers and leads to growth of multiple thin fingers as compared to a single thick dominant finger in less elastic fluids. Observations show the shielding effect is reduced by fluid elasticity. Elastic effects are observed to reduce the thickness of thin film of displaced fluid on the walls of Hele-Shaw cell. The dominant wave number for the growth of instabilities is observed to be higher in more elastic fluids. At the onset of instability, the interface breaks down into a greater number of fingers in more elastic fluids.

Experiments are performed in simulated fractures (slot cells) to show the proppant distribution using alternate-slug fracturing. Observations show alternate-slug fracturing ensures deeper placement of proppant through two primary mechanisms: (a) proppant transport in viscous fingers formed by the low viscosity fluid and (b) an increase in drag force in the polymer slug leading to better entrainment and displacement of any proppant banks that may have formed. The method offers advantages of lower polymer costs, lower pumping horsepower, smaller fracture widths, better control of fluid leak-off and less gel damage compared to conventional gel fracs.