Electrokinetic investigation of coal fines in fractured and porous media

Author Identifiers

Faisal Ur Rahman Awan https://orcid.org/0000-0003-2394-0735

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Engineering

First Advisor

Alireza Keshavarz

Second Advisor

Stefan Iglauer

Third Advisor

Jan Vinogradov


Coal seams are unconventional subsurface formations that host methane and are weaker (relative to conventional subsurface) formations. Coal seams are prone to coal fines generation within the fractured porous space throughout the life of the reservoir. These coal fines damage the permeability, deliverability and productivity of coal seams. Furthermore, the coal fines mobility/blockage in the hydraulically induced fractures and proppant packs negatively impacts the proppant conductivity. In this work, a comprehensive study has been conducted to augment the understanding of coal fines and their behaviour within porous and proppant pack systems. Systematic experiments were conducted to address the coal fines by developing various approaches presented in this work. The approaches adopted to achieve the study objectives were: i) streaming zeta potential on coal and sandstone, ii) nano-treated proppant surface modification for coal fines adsorption, and iii) coal fines mobility/attachment in the proppant packs.

One of the electrokinetic parameters that is crucial in releasing/mobilising coal fines is coal’s zeta potential. The coal surface is generally hydrophobic and possesses negative zeta potential. Researchers have used the electrophoretic zeta potential technique to indicate charge identification of coal particles, denoting repulsion or attraction of the particle. In chapter 3, a robust study investigates streaming zeta potential measurements of an in-situ sub-bituminous coal core saturated with saline water of 0.1, 0.3 and 0.6 mol.dm-3 NaCl salinities. Thus, the novel study determines the charge carried by percolating fluid when passing through coal rock. The zeta potential is directly proportional to saline water salinity. The trends found in the research were consistent with reported zeta potential measured using other techniques, while the magnitude varied. The findings reported in the study apply to subsurface coal seams at salinity up to 0.6 mol.dm-3 NaCl.

Coal seams are hydraulically fractured for commercial production, and sand-based proppants occupy the fractured space. Before understanding the electrokinetics of coal fines, the behaviour of these sand-based proppants should be determined. Sand-based proppants are predominantly silica, and so are sandstones. Furthermore, the selection of sandstone was further motivated by two reasons, i) for comparison and benchmarking, and ii) correlation with coals (as sandstone and coal both are negatively charged). The research presented in chapter 4 considered clay-rich (i.e. clay ≥ 5 wt.%) sandstones for the first time (as coal can have clay ingredients). Specifically, streaming potential measurements were conducted on Bandera Grey sandstone (clay-rich and -poor) saturated with saline water in pressurised environments. Additionally, the streaming potential was determined at identical conditions for the effect of two surfactants, sodium dodecylbenzene sulfonate (SDBS) and cetrimonium bromide (CTAB), at concentrations of 0.01 and 0.1 wt. % on the clay-poor sample. Moreover, a comparison of electrophoretic and streaming zeta potentials was conducted. Accordingly, the work analyses the effects of mineralogy and surfactants within this process. Clay-rich sandstone possessed lower zeta-potentials than clay-poor sandstone at the two tested salinities. SDBS reduced zeta-potential and yielded higher repulsive forces rendering the rock more hydrophilic. Additionally, electrophoretic zeta-potentials were higher when compared to streaming zeta-potentials. Mechanisms for the observed phenomena are also provided.

Following the observations from the two studies, proppant column experiments with glass bead proppant and high volatile bituminous were conducted and are presented in chapter 5. One of the approaches to handling coal fines is its dispersal within the aqueous suspension. Proppant column experiments were conducted to test various schemes. It was found that coal zeta potential using SDBS reaches a maximum, and regardless of the pH, it effectively delivers the maximum output of coal fines in the effluent. Thus, a 0.001 wt.% SDBS could effectively disperse coal fines suspension through proppant packs.

Nano-treated proppant surface modification was developed to investigate coal fines mobility/attachment within the proppant packs. Succinctly, four (alumina, magnesia, silica and zirconia) nanoparticles (NPs) were adsorbed onto synthetic porous media (glass bead) using a robust pseudo-continuous fixed-bed (PCFB) adsorption method in work presented in chapter 6. A wide range of salinity (0 to 10.5 wt.% NaCl), temperature (298.15 to 348.15 K), NPs loading (0.01 to 0.2 wt.%), and injection rate (1 to 50 mL.min-1) were tested. Results showed that PCFB adsorption of NPs with higher specific surface area resulted in faster adsorption (adsorbed in ~25 mins) with > 99% immobilisation of NPs on the proppant pack. Adsorption kinetics showed reasonable conformity with the pseudo-first-order model, where isothermal adsorption followed the Sips model. The adsorption capacity of magnesia NPs (specific surface area 50 to 80 m2.g-1, 7 wt.% NaCl) at 298.15 K was higher than silica NPs. Accordingly, the newly developed PCFB method can be used for onsite treatment of proppants with nanoparticles, which can then be injected into a fractured formation to achieve multiple objectives such as fines fixation, wettability alteration and sand control.

In this work, another study explored the application of nano-treated proppant packs on the adsorption of coal fines, presented in chapter 7. In this study, the objective was to identify silica nano-formulations (0 – 0.1 wt.%), and coal fines concentration of 0.1 to 1 wt.% were examined to determine the fixation of coal fines within the glass bead synthetic proppant pack. The quantitative results showed that the proppant pack with nanoparticle treatment strongly affects the fixation ability of coal fines. The non-NP treated pack yielded 30% adsorption, whilst the NP treated pack yielded 74% adsorption. It was noted that greater adsorption is also related to the higher zeta potential of silica NPs (i.e. nearer to iso-electric point).

A set of laboratory experiments on industrial-grade proppants was conducted as the definitive work, presented in chapter 8. The work involved sensitivity experiments as a function of coal rank, pH, salinity, and surfactants. These conductivity results were compared with established analytical models to interpret the mechanistic coal-proppant interaction in the presence of an electrolyte. It was found that fines dispersion and its mobility within the proppant pack is easier at high pH, low salinity, temperature, anionic surfactants, and lower concentration of coal fines. However, fines mobility is reduced at neutral pH, high salinity, temperature, and cationic surfactants.

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