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BARILLAS, J. L. M.; DUTRA JR., T. V.; MATA, W. “IMPROVED OIL RECOVERY PROCESS FOR HEAVY OIL: A REVIEW”. Brazilian Journal of Petroleum and Gas. v. 2, n. 1,
p. 45-54, 2008.


J. L. M. Barillas*, 1T. V. Dutra Jr., 1W. Mata
Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte, Departamento de Engenharia Química – CT

* To whom all correspondence should be addressed.

Address: Campus Universitário UFRN, Lagoa Nova, Natal/RN - Brasil, CEP: 59078-970.
Telephone: +55 84 3215-3904

Abstract. Petroleum is one of the main sources of energy in the world, occupying the
first place of the Brazilian energy matrix. Therefore, technologies that involve the
development and application of techniques capable of increasing the profitability of oil
fields are important and require more thorough studies. In Brazil, self-sufficiency has
been already reached in oil production, however it is necessary that improved oil
recovery technologies be continually studied to maintain the current production or to
increase it. Rio Grande do Norte (a Brazilian State) comprises many heavy oil reserves
and the exploration activities in the Brazilian Basins of Campos, Santos and Espírito
Santo have led to the discovery of large amounts of heavy oils. It is possible to increase
heavy oil recovery in some of these reservoirs with the help of improved oil recovery
processes, thus enhancing oil field productivity and profitability. Until recently, heavy
oil reserves did not attract much interest. The lowest oil profitability, the low price of
the oil barrel in the international market, the difficulties involved in its extraction and its
refining, and the large amount of light and medium oils to be explored could not justify
the investments. Maturity of light and medium oil fields and the significant increase in
oil price placed that source of energy under a new perspective. In Brazil, the confirmed
reserves constitute 2.9 billion barrels approximately, 26% of the total reserves, and the
production should reach 450 thousand barrels daily or 25% of the total production
predicted for 2010 (ANP, “Agência Nacional do Petróleo – Brazilian Petroleum
National Agency, 2006). To improve the capacity of drainage of the heavy oils and to
increase its recovery, different thermal methods have been developed. Those more used
involve steam in the process, because they are more efficient than other processes such
as “in situ” combustion or water injection. The steam is used with the intention of
reducing the high oil viscosity and, as a consequence, enhancing phase mobility in
porous media so as to obtain a more efficient drainage up to the producing well.

Keywords: reservoir simulation; reservoir modeling; thermal recovery; IOR; EOR

1. INTRODUCTION increase mobility of the oil that will be

Improved oil recovery methods appear from produced. Thermal methods (steam injection or
the need of increasing the producing life of a in situ combustion), chemical methods
reservoir, augmenting the profitability of the (surfactants injection, Alkali-Surfactant-
process. They are more frequently used when Polymer injection, or polymer injection) or
recovery from conventional methods is less miscible methods (CO2 injection) may be cited
profitable. These processes involve an external as examples of such processes.
agent that can help to reduce the oil viscosity, In conventional methods, low initial
to improve the porous channels, to reduce the recoveries can be due to high oil viscosity in
interfacial tension among the fluids, or to the reservoir and to high interfacial tensions

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BARILLAS, J. L. M.; DUTRA JR., T. V.; MATA, W. “IMPROVED OIL RECOVERY PROCESS FOR HEAVY OIL: A REVIEW”. Brazilian Journal of Petroleum and Gas. v. 2, n. 1,
p. 45-54, 2008.

between injected fluid and oil. If the injected 2. THERMAL IMPROVED OIL
fluid has lower viscosity than that of the RECOVERY METHODS
reservoir oil, it is possible that the displacing
fluid moves easier within the porous media, In the world, there are huge reserves of
finding preferential channels or “fingers” heavy and extra heavy oil, found mainly in
towards the producing wells. In this case, the Venezuela and Canada. In Brazil, however,
oil is left behind because of poor sweep large reserves of heavy oil were found onshore
efficiency. When high interfacial tensions are in the Rio Grande do Norte State. In reservoirs
observed, the capacity of the injected fluid to with heavy or extra heavy oils, it may not be
displace the oil out of the pores of the rock is convenient to employ conventional recovery
very low, leaving high residual oil saturations methods, due to the fact that the high oil
in the areas that already had contact with the viscosity hinders its movement inside the
injected fluid. porous medium, being surpassed by the
These situations can define which method injected fluid and ultimately rendering low
should be used to improve oil recovery. The sweep efficiencies. Heating oil reduces its
recovery methods can be divided into three viscosity and this is the basic principle of
categories: Miscible Methods, Chemical thermal methods. Figure 1 shows the reduction
Methods and Thermal Methods. in oil viscosity with temperature, for three
The method to be used will depend on the different heavy oils (with initial viscosities of
characteristics of the reservoir, the rock and 300 cP, 1000 cP and 3000 cP at 37.8 °C).
fluid, as well as on the fluid-rock interactions In thermal methods two categories can be
and even on the required monetary return of considered: in situ combustion, whereby heat is
investment. Furthermore, prior to any generated inside the reservoir, starting with the
methodology implementation, it is necessary to combustion of part of the oil found in the
devise a meticulous project, including numeric reservoir; and injection of heated-up fluids,
simulations and economical analysis of the whereby heat is generated at the surface and
process. With this work, we have particularly transferred to the reservoir through a fluid
focused on thermal processes, in that they injected into the well. In the injection of
provide a decrease in oil viscosity contained in heated-up fluids, water is used as a medium of
the reservoir, leading to an increase in its heat transfer from the surface to the oil zone.
mobility in the porous medium. Water can be injected as steam or still in the
liquid state at very high temperatures.
Therefore, two main processes are to be

300 cP@ 37.8 °C
3000 cP
100,000 1000 cP@37.8 °C
1000 cP
10,000 3000 cP@37.8 °C
Viscosity, (cP)

1,000 300 cP



200 250 300 350 400 450 500 550 600 650 700
Temperature (K)
Figure 1. Oil viscosity versus temperature for three kinds of heavy oil (Barillas, 2005).

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BARILLAS, J. L. M.; DUTRA JR., T. V.; MATA, W. “IMPROVED OIL RECOVERY PROCESS FOR HEAVY OIL: A REVIEW”. Brazilian Journal of Petroleum and Gas. v. 2, n. 1,
p. 45-54, 2008.

considered: steam injection and hot water conventional process vertical wells are used,
injection. just as water injection or steam injection.
These processes involve both vertical and This process is denominated progressive
horizontal wells, as demonstrated by recent when the combustion front spreads in the same
progress on certain technologies, such as direction of the air flow, or reverse, when the
measuring while drilling (MWD), which front spreads in the opposite direction. The
improved the success of horizontal wells, progressive combustion can still be classified
reducing any drilling navigation problems. as draught, when only enriched air is injected,
Horizontal wells have shown high efficiency in or wet, when both air and water are injected.
terms of oil recovery, due to intrinsically larger Oil ignition is obtained after some days or
reservoir contact areas. However, they are still weeks after the beginning of air injection, and
more expensive than vertical wells. Therefore, air continues to be injected later on. Ignition
an economical evaluation is necessary to can be effected through burners at the well
compare oil earnings and costs before selection bottom, electric heating or via polytrophic
of the most appropriate configuration. agents. Self-ignition can also be promoted,
Some of the technologies that use horizontal depending on the reservoir temperature and the
wells are: steam assisted gravity drainage oil reactivity degree.
(SAGD), expanded solvent with gravity There is a variety of in situ combustion
drainage (ES-SAGD) and vapor extraction process known as THAI (Toe-to-Heel-Air-
(VAPEX). These technologies improve the Injection), whereby a horizontal well is used as
fluid contact area in the reservoir, the sweep oil producer at the bottom of the reservoir, and
efficiencies and oil production. They may also a vertical well is employed as air injector at the
reduce production costs. top and near the end (toe) of the horizontal
Thermal oil recovery methods have proven well. The air injected into the vertical well
to be successful in most applications. This can generates the combustion front that burns part
be due to the fact that the oil viscosity is much of the oil and releases heat. The heat reduces
more reduced by these processes. The chosen the oil viscosity inside the reservoir, which
method should be carefully evaluated and the flows to the horizontal well at the bottom, due
analysis should consider physical reservoir to gravity. The combustion front sweeps from
parameters, results from similar reservoirs, the end of the horizontal producer (toe) up to
teamwork experience and reservoir simulations. the heel, leading to recoveries of oil up to 80%
(Nasr and Ayodele, 2005).
2.1. In situ Combustion
The in situ Combustion method begins with 2.2. Steam flooding
the injection of heated air into the oil reservoir. The injection of steam as a recovery method
Heat is generated as a result of oil oxidation, for heavy oil has been used for many years in
increasing the temperature. Continuing the the United States, Canada, Brazil and
oxidation, the temperature eventually reaches Venezuela. In this process steam is
the so-called "ignition point”, when the continuously injected in one or more vertical
combustion is established. At that point it is wells, and the oil is pushed away to producing
necessary to inject cold air to provide wells.
continuity to the process (Briggs et al., 1987; Since this process requires injectors and
Thomas et al., 2001). The combustion front producers, a larger area inside of the reservoir
displaces any trapped reservoir fluids is embraced, and oil recoveries higher than
(including injected gases and those resulting those provided by cyclical steam injection are
from combustion), up to the producing well. In obtained (Farouq Ali, 2003). Oil recovery in
this process care should be taken with this process can reach up to 50% or more, but
parameters such as combustion temperature and thermal efficiency is lower than in cyclical
gravitational segregation of the gases. In the steam injection (Nasr and Ayodele, 2005).

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BARILLAS, J. L. M.; DUTRA JR., T. V.; MATA, W. “IMPROVED OIL RECOVERY PROCESS FOR HEAVY OIL: A REVIEW”. Brazilian Journal of Petroleum and Gas. v. 2, n. 1,
p. 45-54, 2008.

Figure 2. Steamflooding in an inverted five-spot grid.

Figure 2 shows and example of steam injection continuous steam injection. In the case of very
in an inverted 5-spot grid. viscous oils, stimulation prior to continuous
Recent projects for oil recovery have injection is essential to obtain flow
proposed the combination of vertical and communication between injectors and
horizontal wells, but some technical problems producers. This communication can be
still exist such as minimization of the impact of established through the creation of fractures
the gas cap and of water influx (Nasr and among the wells, which can be done by
Ayodele, 2005). injecting steam at sufficiently high pressures
The methods of continuous and cyclical (Briggs et al., 1987).
steam injection are frequently combined and Figure 3 shows one example of cumulative
used, whereby wells produce oil through oil and oil rate versus time with and without
cyclical stimulation before the beginning of steam injection for an inverted 5-spot pattern. It

Figure 3. Cumulative oil and oil rate versus time with and without
steam injection for an inverted 5-spot pattern.

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BARILLAS, J. L. M.; DUTRA JR., T. V.; MATA, W. “IMPROVED OIL RECOVERY PROCESS FOR HEAVY OIL: A REVIEW”. Brazilian Journal of Petroleum and Gas. v. 2, n. 1,
p. 45-54, 2008.

can be seen that cumulative oil after 16 years of facilities to reduce production costs and steam
production is much bigger (100,000 SC m3) in generation (Rosa et al., 2006).
the case with steam injection as compared to
that without steam injection (20,000 SC m3). 2.3. Steam cyclical injection
Oil recovery in this process depends on Cyclical stimulation (also known as huff n'
several factors, such as viscosity decrease, oil puff) was accidentally discovered in Eastern
swelling and, most importantly, the reduction Venezuela in 1959 (Nasr and Ayodele, 2005).
in oil saturation in the steam zone. The In this process, steam is injected under high
displacement efficiency is increased by the heat pressure and temperature. The high injection
to the proportion that more oil flows. Oil pressure dilates or fractures the reservoir rock
saturations behind the steam zone can be as low and the high temperature helps to reduce oil
as 5%. viscosity. The cyclical injection takes place in
The losses of heat generated at the surface at three stages:
high cost are significant in injection lines, wells Stage 1, injection time: Steam is injected in
and reservoir formation. For that reason, heat a well, for a certain period of time (days or
should not be used in deep, small-thickness or weeks).
low-permeability reservoirs. Stage 2, soaking time: After the injection
Oil field staff should be familiarized with period, the well is closed for some days to
the operation of the steam generator in order to equalize pressure and exchange heat.
maintain the efficiency. Operations at high Stage 3, production time: The same well
temperatures carry additional safety risks. used for steam injection is used to produce
Fails in cementation, in conventional heated oil.
completed wells, are frequent under thermal At the beginning, oil is produced at high
operations. The new wells should be completed rates, which eventually begin to rapidly
and equipped to operate at high temperatures. decrease. The cycle can be repeated several
The production of sand is normal in thermal times, whilst still economically viable. This
projects. The formation of emulsion is possible process has as main advantage the fast return
with some oils during steam injection. during early production. However oil recovery
The initial investment in steam generators is can be as low as 10 or 20% of the original oil
high. The rent of portable units to test the volume (Farouq, 2003).
response of the reservoir to the method can be This process can use horizontal and vertical
considered to minimize the risk. wells, depending on the reservoir thickness.
Prompt availability and cost of fuel for The cyclical steam injection has been used in
water heating in the operation of steam several oil fields with success, like in Alberta,
generation are important factors to be Canada, where oil viscosity is about
accounted for. Both natural gas and oil have 100.000 cp. In heavy oil fields of Venezuela
advantages and disadvantages. Generators fed and Brazil this thermal recovery method has
with oil can convert about 15 m3 of water for also been used with success. In California, it is
each m3 of burned oil. Therefore at least 1 m3 used as a first stage before continuous steam
of oil should be recovered for each 15 m3 of injection (Farouq Ali, 2003). Recently, this
water injected as steam. technology has also been used in horizontal
Thermal operations require higher attention wells, mainly in Venezuela and in Alberta
from engineering and operation staff to keep (Canada).
them efficient. High viscosity oils, usually Dominant mechanisms in heat transfer are:
considered for thermal projects, are also the conduction and forced convection during
ones with lower price. The result of high injection, conduction and a minimum
investment, high operation cost and smaller oil convection effect during the soaking period,
price is usually involved with low profit. and counter current of convection-conduction
Successful projects generally use centralized during the production period.

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BARILLAS, J. L. M.; DUTRA JR., T. V.; MATA, W. “IMPROVED OIL RECOVERY PROCESS FOR HEAVY OIL: A REVIEW”. Brazilian Journal of Petroleum and Gas. v. 2, n. 1,
p. 45-54, 2008.

A significant characteristic of steam same push drive or reservoir pressure can

stimulation is that the injected heat is transport oil to the producing well. The initial
concentrated close to the well, where the flow flow is faster than in conventional steam
lines converge and the pressure gradients are process production because of resistance. When
highest. Steam stimulation tends, inherently, to cold oil is initially immobile or almost
place the heat where it will make the best immobile, the reservoir pressure is inadequate
benefit. The largest difference among the to the displacement of the oil to the producing
stimulation in cyclical steam injection and the well in a practical rate and, in that case, other
conventional continuous steam injection is that, driving forces are required.
in cyclical stimulation, the displaced oil The soaking time after steam injection can
becomes and remains warm as it flows to the vary from a few days to weeks. There are
producing well, whilst in conventional different opinions regarding optimization of the
continuous injection oil should pass through soaking time. In some cases, mechanical and
colder areas of the reservoir. operational considerations will favor a short
It is important to highlight that, in cyclical closing time in the steam injection.
steam injection, the reservoir can contain such The treated well is then put in production
viscous oil that can be considered solid. The and should produce by natural lifting, with its
steam role is “to dissolve that solid” and to own reservoir energy, during days. This is
allow it to flow through the reservoir. One of desirable, because the imposed bottom well
the operational conditions in that process is pressure tends to prevent water flashing at high
related to the steam required to increase the temperatures. In the following period, the well
reservoir temperature to a certain level, taking will have to be pumped. In some cases, sand
into account the heat losses. control becomes the main operational problem.
In some point of the cyclical steam injection Frequently, oil rate decreases in subsequent
process, there should be an effective driving cycles, as can be seen in Figure 4. If the
force to displace the oil to the producing well. cyclical injection is to be followed by a
If the oil already has substantial mobility and continuous injection – as observed in recent
can be produced by conventional means, times – it will be desirable to determine the
without steam at considerable rates, then the number of cycles that will maximize the oil

Oil rate (m³ std/day)







Jan-04 Sep-06 Jun-09 Mar-12 Dec-14 Sep-17 Jun-20
Without cyclic steam 10 Cyclic injections

Figure 4. Oil rate in 20 years of production in a numerical model with and without
cyclic steam injection (Queiroz, 2005).

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BARILLAS, J. L. M.; DUTRA JR., T. V.; MATA, W. “IMPROVED OIL RECOVERY PROCESS FOR HEAVY OIL: A REVIEW”. Brazilian Journal of Petroleum and Gas. v. 2, n. 1,
p. 45-54, 2008.

Cumulative oil (SC m )






jan-04 sept-06 jun-09 mar-12 dec-14 sept-17 jun-20


Primary production 1 Cycles 2 Cycles 3 Cycles

4 Cycles 5 Cycles 6 Cycles 7 Cycles
8 Cycles 9 Cycles 10 Cycles

Figure 5. Oil rate in 20 years of production in a model with and without cyclic steam injection.

recovery for the cyclical injection and steam evident in several production statistics. The
injection. average and maximum rates as long as total oil
Figure 5 shows cumulative oil versus time in recovery decrease in the last cycles.
an optimization of the number of cycles in a
cyclic steam injection. In this example the 2.4. Steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD)
maximum cumulative oil can be obtained, with Steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD)
8 or 9 cycles (Queiroz 2005). and its variations are technologies that have
The response for a cyclic steam injection been recently considered as more effective in
varies considerably with the reservoir the recovery of heavy oil and bituminous sands.
characteristics. As an example, for highly tilted The method involves two horizontal parallel
and thick California reservoirs, gravity wells vertically separated by a short distance,
drainage is dominant and many cycles are where the top well serves as steam injector and
possible, since less viscous, warm oil continue the bottom well picks up reservoir water,
to flow down in the direction of the producing condensed water and heated oil. Gravity is the
well. acting force in this process. When steam is
Regardless of the reservoir type, the cyclic continually injected at the top well, oil is heated
injection becomes usually less efficient with up and forms a steam chamber that grows up
increasing number of cycles. This fact is and towards the surroundings (Butler, 1991), as

Oil flow to
Oil producer well
Reservoir Steam flow
to interface
Injector well

Producer well

Figure 6. Butler’s SAGD theory (Butler, 1991).

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BARILLAS, J. L. M.; DUTRA JR., T. V.; MATA, W. “IMPROVED OIL RECOVERY PROCESS FOR HEAVY OIL: A REVIEW”. Brazilian Journal of Petroleum and Gas. v. 2, n. 1,
p. 45-54, 2008.

can be observed in Figure 6. The temperature production. Also, production of low-viscosity

inside the steam chamber becomes essentially oil can be enhanced.
equal to the temperature of the injected steam. Due to the fact that oil production in the
It is noticed that steam condenses at the SAGD process depends basically on gravity
interface with cold oil and heat is transferred to drainage, wells with large lengths guarantee
the oil. Then, heated oil and condensed water good oil productions and, as a consequence, the
drain by gravity, until the producing horizontal project profitability is augmented. Compared to
well located at the bottom of the reservoir. conventional steam injection, SAGD presents a
In this process the steam chamber begins to very significant advantage: in continuous
grow upward approaching the reservoir top and injection, oil is pushed to a cold region, and its
later extends horizontally (Butler, 1991). It may mobility is low since it stays ahead of the steam
keep growing up with continuous steam zone. However, in the SAGD process, oil is
injection. If the injector well is located very drained in a flow which is approximately
close to the producer, at the base of the parallel to the steam chamber, still arriving at
reservoir, the vapor will tend to go up, and the producer at warm temperatures, and,
condensed fluids will go down. Therefore, the consequently, with high mobility. Furthermore,
trend of the steam to flow directly to the the tendency of the steam to create a path
producing well will be reduced. As a result, the through the oil is used in favor of the process
SAGD process provides the drainage of a large (Butler, 2001).
area of the reservoir. This process depends In addition to the benefits of the gravity
mainly on the difference of densities between effects, this process foresees more systematic
the steam chamber and the liquid phase, and steam coverage of the reservoir, provides a
also on the vertical effective permeability of the larger contact of oil volume and keeps the oil
reservoir (Nasr and Ayodele, 2005). warm during production. The SAGD
According to Serhat and Bagci (2001), the performance can be significantly affected by
consequences of this theory refer to the growth the selection of the geometry and by the
of the steam chamber, which is necessary in oil operational parameters (Barillas, 2006).
production. In other words, the oil production Examples of this can be: vertical distance
happens while steam is injected, and the higher between wells, horizontal length of both
the steam temperature the higher will be the oil injector and producer wells, presence of shale,
temperature, thus yielding higher oil permeability, oil viscosity, aquifer

Figure 7. SAGD process in a homogeneous reservoir.

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BARILLAS, J. L. M.; DUTRA JR., T. V.; MATA, W. “IMPROVED OIL RECOVERY PROCESS FOR HEAVY OIL: A REVIEW”. Brazilian Journal of Petroleum and Gas. v. 2, n. 1,
p. 45-54, 2008.

Figure 8. Cumulative oil and oil rate in 16 years of production in

a model with SAGD and without steam injection.

characteristics, gas cap, and others. Figure 7 production and steam oil ratio (SOR). This
shows an example of the SAGD process in a process requires less energy than conventional
homogeneous reservoir. SAGD.
Figure 8 compares the SAGD process with The basic concept of ES-SAGD can be
cold production in terms of cumulative oil and pictorially observed in Figure 9. The idea in
oil rate. It can be seen that the SAGD process this process is to inject a light hydrocarbon
improves both cumulative oil and oil rate. additive at low concentration together with
steam, in a process whereby the dominant force
2.5. Expanding solvent (ES-SAGD) is gravity. The additive is selected in such way
This process is a combination of solvent and that can evaporate and condense at water
steam injection that take advantage of the conditions. In this way, solvent can condense
benefits from the heat provided by steam and with steam close to the steam chamber
the miscibility offered by the solvent. This is a interface. The added hydrocarbon is injected in
novel process that has already been tested in oil the vapor form. The condensed solvent dilutes
fields, resulting in improvement of oil rate in oil and, aided by the heat, reduces the oil

Oil rio
de Condensed solvent
óleo Vapor solvent
Poço Injetor
Injector well

Poço produtor
Producer well

Figure 9. Basic theory of ES-SAGD.

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BARILLAS, J. L. M.; DUTRA JR., T. V.; MATA, W. “IMPROVED OIL RECOVERY PROCESS FOR HEAVY OIL: A REVIEW”. Brazilian Journal of Petroleum and Gas. v. 2, n. 1,
p. 45-54, 2008.

viscosity in the reservoir (Nasr and Ayodele, BRIGGS, P. J.; FULLEYLOVE, R. J.;
2005). WRIGHT, M.S.; BARON, R. P.
Development of heavy oil reservoirs. In:
3. CONCLUSIONS held in Manama, Bahrain, 1987, March 7-
Thermal oil recovery methods are used 10, technical paper SPE 15748.
mainly in heavy oils or bituminous sands with BUTLER, R. M.: Thermal Recovery of oil and
the intention of reducing oil viscosity in the bitumen. Department of Chemical and
reservoir, increasing its mobility and allowing Petroleum Engineering. Prentice Hall: New
better displacement to the producing wells. The Jersey. No 7, p. 285-358, 1991.
selected process always depends on reservoir BUTLER, R. M.: Application of SAGD,
characteristics, reservoir fluids, area and related process growing in Canada. Oil and
experience from similar reservoirs. Due to its Gas Journal. 74-78, 14 May, 2001.
complexity, numerical analyses, reservoir FAROUQ ALI, S. M.: Heavy oil-evermore
modeling and profitability analyses are always mobile. Journal of Petroleum Science &
required in order to determine which process is Engineering. 37, 5-9, 2003.
more efficient in minimizing the amount of NASR, T. N.; AYODELE, O. R.: Thermal
injected fluids. techniques for the recovery oh heavy oil
The authors wish to thank PPGEQ, LEAP, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 5-6 December,
Petrobras and the PRH-ANP 14 for the support 2005, technical paper SPE 97488.
received in the execution of this work. QUEIROZ, G. O.: Otimização da injeção
cíclica de vapor em reservatórios de óleo
pesado. 2006. 135 p. Thesis (Chemical
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