High pressure-elevated temperature x-ray micro-computed tomography for subsurface applications
School of Engineering
Physical, chemical and mechanical pore-scale (i.e. micrometer-scale) mechanisms in rock are of key importance in many, if not all, subsurface processes. These processes are highly relevant in various applications, e.g. hydrocarbon recovery, CO2 geo-sequestration, geophysical exploration, water production, geothermal energy production, or the prediction of the location of valuable hydrothermal deposits. Typical examples are multi-phase flow (e.g. oil and water) displacements driven by buoyancy, viscous or capillary forces, mineral-fluid interactions (e.g. mineral dissolution and/or precipitation over geological times), geo-mechanical rock behaviour (e.g. rock compaction during diagenesis) or fines migration during water production, which can dramatically reduce reservoir permeability (and thus reservoir performance). All above examples are 3D processes, and 2D experiments (as traditionally done for micro-scale investigations) will thus only provide qualitative information; for instance the percolation threshold is much lower in 3D than in 2D. However, with the advent of x-ray micro-computed tomography (μCT) – which is now routinely used – this limitation has been overcome, and such pore-scale processes can be observed in 3D at micrometer-scale. A serious complication is, however, the fact that in the subsurface high pressures and elevated temperatures (HPET) prevail, due to the hydrostatic and geothermal gradients imposed upon it. Such HPET-reservoir conditions significantly change the above mentioned physical and chemical processes, e.g. gas density is much higher at high pressure, which strongly affects buoyancy and wettability and thus gas distributions in the subsurface; or chemical reactions are significantly accelerated at increased temperature, strongly affecting fluid-rock interactions and thus diagenesis and deposition of valuable minerals. It is thus necessary to apply HPET conditions to the aforementioned μCT experiments, to be able to mimic subsurface conditions in a realistic way, and thus to obtain reliable results, which are vital input parameters required for building accurate larger-scale reservoir models which can predict the overall reservoir-scale (hectometer-scale) processes (e.g. oil production or diagenesis of a formation). We thus describe here the basic workflow of such HPET-μCT experiments, equipment requirements and apparatus design; and review the literature where such HPET-μCT experiments were used and which phenomena were investigated (these include: CO2 geo-sequestration, oil recovery, gas hydrate formation, hydrothermal deposition/reactive flow). One aim of this paper is to give a guideline to users how to set-up a HPET-μCT experiment, and to provide a quick overview in terms of what is possible and what not, at least up to date. As a conclusion, HPET-μCT is a valuable tool when it comes to the investigation of subsurface micrometer-scaled processes, and we expect a rapidly expanding usage of HPET-μCT in subsurface engineering and the subsurface sciences.