Oil Sands Review: U of R researcher’s computer model allows producers to ‘see’ solvent-oil front in the reservoir

A University of Regina postdoctoral fellow has solved one of the biggest challenges in the enhanced oilsands recovery process: how to accurately model the flow instability and control the contact area between the oil and solvent/water being injected into the reservoir.

Qingwang Yuan’s computer model, developed with a team from the university and the Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC), essentially allows producers to “see” what’s taking place underground.

SRC and the University of Regina have been collaborating for years to bring potential solutions to problems associated with the heavy oil industry. The idea of developing a computer model to understand the frontal instabilities in heavy oil recovery processes is one of the many collaborative works between the two organizations.

Working with Fanhua Zeng, a professor at the University of Regina and Yuan’s supervisor, and other team members, the SRC plans to integrate this model into commercially available software, enabling oil companies to perform more accurate large-scale simulations of entire oil fields.

A commercial product should be available in the next one to two years, Yuan said in an interview.

“None of the simulators currently commercially available are able to accurately capture the instability that occurs when the oil comes in contact with the fluids being injected, whether it’s water, solvent or steam,” Yuan said.

“Using our models, oil companies can study the displacement process, test different scenarios and ultimately optimize their processes to obtain the highest oil recovery possible.”

The work earned Yuan the Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation – Postdoctoral, awarded by Mitacs, a national, not-for-profit organization that partners companies, government and academia to promote Canadian research and training. The award was presented at a ceremony in Ottawa on Tuesday.

When solvent meets oil 

When the contact front between oil and injected water, steam or solvent is unstable, the process is inefficient and large amounts of oil are left behind. Yuan’s computer model can accurately simulate what happens when the injected solvent/water meets the heavy oil. This information is vital for oil companies to make the recovery process more efficient.

“Yuan’s computer model is a viable solution to the problems that have challenged the industry for years,” said Zeng, noting that his work also forms a solid foundation for future research.

In addition to the oil industry, the computer model can also be used to bring more accurate fluid flow modelling to water contamination, carbon dioxide sequestration and geothermal recovery processes.

Yuan has accepted a postdoc position at Stanford University, where he will focus on numerical modelling for shale oil and shale gas production. The team in Saskatchewan will continue to advance his work.

The Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation – Postdoctoral is presented to a postdoctoral fellow who has made a significant achievement in research and development innovation while participating in a Mitacs-funded program. Yuan is one of five Mitacs award winners nationally, chosen from thousands of researchers who take part in Mitacs programs each year.

“These award winners represent some of the best and brightest minds across our country whose work is at the leading edge of their respective fields, and Mitacs is honoured to provide a platform to help bring their research to fruition,” said Alejandro Adem, Mitacs chief executive officer and scientific director.

By: Maurice Smith