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Electromagnetic heating of oil

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The electromagnetic heating of oil wells and reservoirs refers to thermal processes for the improved production of oil from underground reservoirs. The source of the heat, generated either in the wells or in the volume of the reservoir, is the electrical energy supplied from the surface. This energy is then transmitted to the reservoir either by cables or through metal structures that reach the reservoir. The main effect, because of the electrical heating systems used in practice in enhanced oil recovery, has been the reduction of the viscosity of heavy and extra heavy crudes and bitumens, with the corresponding increase in production. Focus is centered on systems (and the models that describe their effects) that have been used for the electromagnetic heating in the production of extra heavy petroleum and bitumen. The importance of these hydrocarbons is because of the size of the heavy oil reserves in Canada, Venezuela, countries of the former USSR, the USA, and China.[1][2][3]


The advantages of electrical stimulation of wells and reservoirs are several:

  • The production is not interrupted by the application of electrical power.
  • It seems more efficient energetically than steam stimulation (although more careful determinations of the energy gain factors should be obtained from fully instrumented field tests).
  • It can be used in shallow wells where steam breakthrough can occur.
  • Electrical heating does not require the additional investments required for a steam distribution system because most wells with pumps already have electrical grid connections. In most cases, the level of electrical power available at the well sites is sufficient to accommodate a higher power requirement.
  • The widespread application of electrical submersible pumps (operating at high voltages) has generalized the knowledge required for electrical cable installations in oil installations, making it a routine process.

Further considerations on electrical heating are:

  • The use of electricity, generated in plants that use fossil fuels, to increase oil production may seem contradictory, but it certainly should be used if it is energetically more efficient than steam stimulation.
  • Many concentrated resistive heaters have been installed without temperature control. As the temperature increased because of gas flow (for example), the heaters failed. The required additional connections to downhole temperature detectors (metal resistances or thermocouples) complicate the installation of these heaters but their use is necessary.
  • Distributed heating has been associated with the need for isolated sections of casing and production tubing (epoxy filled fiberglass structures), which are inherently weak under regular oil field usage. Additionally, water slug flow may tend to short-circuit some of these systems with the corresponding failures.
  • Distributed resistance heating, although originally considered for high-frequency excitations, is in fact mostly used at low-frequencies (close to 60 Hz).
  • Very few modeling studies compared the transient response of concentrated vs. distributed heaters (and certainly no field comparison of the two methods has been carried out under similar conditions).
  • Electrical heating requires a multidisciplinary approach, and many producers limit electrical engineering personnel activities to power generation and distribution. The application of electrical heating in the oil industry, if at all considered, is not a significant topic covered in electrical engineering university programs. This is so even in those countries where the economy depends significantly on heavy and extra-heavy oil production.

Development history of electromagnetic heating

Low-frequency resistive heaters

Downhole concentrated electrical heaters have been used for many years. Their early applications, prior to 1969 in the former U.S.S.R. and the United States, have been reviewed by Farouq Ali who described more than 70 wells stimulated electrically in the U.S.S.R. and some 60 wells in California.[4] In a second publication, Farouq Ali discussed the first patents issued in the USSR (in 1934) and in the USA (in 1951).[5] The structure of the heaters, shown in Fig. 1, has not changed significantly in time.*[6]

The heating elements consist of iron-nickel-chromium or nickel-chromium alloy wires wound on high-thermal-conductivity materials with low electrical losses, enclosed in metallic cylindrical sheaths. The resistive wires could also be surrounded by compacted magnesium oxide powder.[7] [8] According to Orfeil, the use of the heating elements is restricted to surface power densities lower than 2 watts/cm2, because of maximum temperature limitations.[9]

  • Personal communication with J. Rau, Petrotherm, Tía Juana, Venezuela (1997).

High frequency to microwave-distributed heating

In 1976, Abernethy first described microwave-distributed heating (refer to Fig. 12.5), including a complete model of the proposed process (discussed later in this chapter).[10]

Distributed low-frequency heating

In 1979, Gill reported the first low-frequency single-phase distributed heating system applied in oil fields in Texas, Utah, and Mexico.[11] It is described as an electrothermic system for enhanced oil recovery(EOR) and uses the structure shown in Fig. 2, with voltage excitations of 480 volts at 60 Hz. Vinsome et al. described recent versions of commercially available distributed heating systems.[12] The power-supply current flows through “tubing, cables or a combination of both.” A possible system, in which the power supply is connected by cable to the lower section of the production tubing that is in electrical contact with the reservoir through the perforated metallic casing, is shown in Fig. 3.

High-frequency concentrated heating

In 1979, Bridges et al. wrote a conceptual paper on the possible use of radio frequency (10 KHz to 10 MHz) power for the heating of Utah tar sands, applied through a set of metallic electrodes inserted into the surface reservoir much like a set of capacitors.[13] The scheme proposed is shown in Fig. 4. Carlson et al. and Sresty et al. reported the results of the field tests of high-frequency (2.2875 MHz and 13.56 MHz) heating at 20 to 40 kW power levels in Utah.[14] [15] The first successful test used an implanted horizontal electrode array, which covered a 1 m3 volume of material. A second test, covering a volume of 25 m3 and heated by a set of vertical electrodes, had to be stopped because of the subsidence of the tar sand mass but was later completed when the roof support was improved.

Low-frequency distributed resistive heating along the well

Electrical strip heaters (available in continuous lengths between 1,000 and 3,500 ft) situated along the production well pipe have been used in the reduction of waxy deposits for several years. Lately, the use of electrical heaters has been applied to the reduction of hydrates deposits in pipelines.[16]

The 1995 published field results by Cheng et al. show several wells thermally excited by distributed resistive heating that was provided for by cables inside hollow pump rods.[17] The arrangement, shown in Fig. 5, is representative of a distributed resistive heating system for wells.

Distributed LF resistive heating in vertical/horizontal wells

McGee and Vermeulen described the application of distributed heating in horizontal/vertical well —combinations.[18] The structure, proposed for their system, is essentially that which is shown in Fig. 6.

Process modeling: theoretical and physical

In 1957, Schild carried out the first complete steady-state modeling of concentrated heaters and also reported on earlier uses of these heaters.[19] Abernethy first proposed a theoretical scheme examining the possibility that microwave frequency waves could propagate in a reservoir.[10] He compared the steady-state temperature distribution, produced by this high-frequency distributed heating scheme, with the temperature distribution produced by concentrated heating. No comparison was presented for the transient production rate of the two methods.

A numerical analysis for a distributed system based on a Canadian patent was published in 1978 by Todd and Howell.[20] Convection effects were not considered and the distributed electrical power was determined by a resistive circuital network.

Calculations by Newbold and Perkins determined the possible losses incurred in the electrical transmission of low-frequency power (60 Hz to 2,400 Hz) from the surface to the reservoir production level.[21] Both Eddy-current losses and magnetic losses were considered for transmission through wire cables or through the tubing system.

Harvey et al. discussed a laboratory simulation for simultaneous waterflooding and distributed resistive heating, and Harvey and Arnold modeled the concurrent radial flow of low frequency electrical currents and injected water (heat conduction to overburden and underburden is disregarded).[22] [23]

Vermeulen and Chute described physical models for distributed conduction heating and for inductive localized heating,[22] [23] [24] and McPherson et al.[25] modeled the steady-state excitation of Athabasca bitumen at varying frequencies from 60 Hz to 250 kHz using transmission line theory to improve the model of the metallic electrodes. Bridges et al. discussed the electromagnetic stimulation of heavy oil wells.[26] [27]

Killough and Gonzalez presented a numerical model of well-to-well distributed conductive heating, which is compared with previous experimental results of El-Feky.[28] [29] They compare DC power excitation and three phase excitation, but no capacitive (or permittivity) characteristics of the system were given, and no frequency effects were reported.

In 1986, Hiebert et al. presented a numerical two-dimensional (2D) simulator for low-frequency (60-Hz) distributed heating but ignored convection heat flow.[30] They included a list of patents related to this heating scheme.

Casey and Bansai calculated the near field, produced by a dipole antenna.[31] In 1989, Callarotti described the frequency limitations of resistive-capacitive (R-C) circuits.[32] Pizarro and Trevisan presented a model, applied to a 1987 distributed heating test, that was carried out in the Rio Panon field in Brazil.[33] Their model did not include convection terms or heat losses to regions outside the producing zone but considered both oil and water phases.

Fanchi, in 1990, examined the propagation of cylindrical transverse electromagnetic waves into the reservoir, showing the validity of the model used by Abernethy if the reservoir is far away from the radiating source.[10] [34] In the same year, Baylor et al. discussed the reservoir steady-state response to low-frequency resistive distributed heating at the SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition.[35] Islam et al. discussed distributed low-frequency heating of horizontal wells at a conference in 1991.[36] And in the same year, at the UNITAR conference, electrical heating was discussed, including microwave heating and high-frequency —modeling.[36] [37] [38] [39] [40]

In 1992, Callarotti and Di Lorenzo used R-C circuital modeling in core tomography, while Sumbar et al. presented a numerical model for distributed low-frequency heating, which correctly includes the convective heat transfer but only considers one phase of fluid (incompressible oil) driven by a pressure source at the reservoir outer radius.[41] [42] One year later, Dolande and Datta provided analytical solutions to one-dimensional (1D) conductive heat transfer problems in the presence of radiated power exponentially decreasing in space.[43]

In the mid-1990s, Callarotti published the application of circuital modeling to the transient solution of fluid flow in porous media, as well as a new numerical method that avoids time iterations.[44][45] Later, Callarotti and Mendoza compared the transient and steady-state response of concentrated vs. distributed heating for different fixed production rates (the fluid flow equation was not solved).[46]

Soliman presented an approximate numerical model for the electrical heating of reservoir at power levels in which the water is vaporized.[47] Also in 1999, Hu et al. presented the results of a physical model with high-frequency heating (5 to 20 MHz).[48]


The conductivity of medium heavy oil, including its temperature dependence, was measured by Kendall in 1978.[49] Snow and Bridges, from the Illinois Inst. of Technology, reported laboratory experiments in which radio-frequency power (in the range of 100 to 300 KHz) was applied to oil shales, and the results were compared with pyrolysis experiments.[50][51]

Later, in the early 1980s, Butts et al. measured microwave heating (at 2,450 MHz) of New Brunswick oil shales.[52] Briggs et al. measured the response of New Brunswick oil shales at high frequencies in three bands: 10 to 1,000 MHz, 2 to 4 GHz, and 8 to 12 GHz, reporting a permittivity of ε = ε0 (3.5 – j0.2) at 915 MHz, and Vermeulen and Chute measured samples from the Athabasca deposits in a frequency range from 50 Hz to 1 GHz.[24] [53]

The effect of interfacial polarization phenomena, in which diffusion current and space charge are considered at the solid/liquid interphases, was discussed by Sen and Chew.[54] They included a discussion of the anomalously high values of the dielectric constants of wet rocks (up to 1,000) that were previously discussed by Poley et al.[55] The situation occurring in these heterogeneous solid/liquid systems is certainly complex—a well-known fact in impedance spectroscopy electrochemical measurements.

The case of oil by itself, out of the reservoir, is much simpler. It is characterized by a very small conductivity: σ = 2.5 × 10–8 siemens/m for medium heavy oil with 0.9 gravity.[49] Dielectric constant measurements show no surprises over the frequency range from 100 Hz to 3 GHz, with a measured permittivity of ε = ε0 (2.3 – j0.011) at high frequencies.*

  • Personal communication with W.B. Westphal, formerly with the MIT Laboratory for Insulation Research, Cambridge, Massachusetts


Reviews and general references

In 1987, Prats published an updated version of his 1982 monograph on thermal methods, which includes a review of electrical heating methods.[56]

Also, in the same year, Vermeulen and Chute suggested a nomenclature to be used for electromagnetic heating processes in accordance to different approximations in Maxwell’s equations.[57]

Chute and Vermeulen reviewed actual and potential applications of electrical heating for oil production and included complete references on the subject.[58] Duncan reviewed electrical heating schemes and included well designs and completion practices.[59]

Selyakov and Kadet published a textbook on percolation processes in porous media, in which the microscopic descriptions of alternating currents, acoustic waves, and dissipation effects are discussed.[60] Other textbooks, edited by Kraszewski and by Kinston and Haswell, represent excellent references on the interaction of electromagnetic energy with water-containing and other materials.[61] [62]

Future technology development

Although distributed low-frequency (60 Hz) heating critically depends on isolated casing and tubing sections (with doubtful field behavior), new connection designs and the development of new materials should improve the potential of this application.

Concentrated low-frequency resistive heaters will certainly continue to be used to improve heavy oil production. Downhole thermocouple or resistance thermometers might be replaced with surface control systems in which the temperature can be inferred without additional connections to the reservoir, thus, simplifying the installation of the heaters.

Very few low-frequency heating systems (distributed or concentrated) are purchased on the basis of regular reservoir/well requirements, as they are still considered experimental. The heater power and the size of the corresponding power supplies are generally overestimated, resulting in higher costs.

Very little use has been made of concentrated inductive heaters. Those used were developed from resistive heating system designs and operated at low frequency.[63] Future designs and field evaluations should establish if the efficiency and useful lifetime of these heaters is better than those of resistive heaters.

High-frequency (300 MHz to 300 GHz) microwave heating has not been extensively field tested. It may be a very good option for the heating of the metallic portions of a well because the circular production tubing can be used as a waveguide with losses. Thus, part of the heat, generated in the metallic walls, is transferred to the surroundings by conduction and convection. The waveguide (or coaxial cable) connections to the reservoir can be excited at different frequencies to obtain different heating profiles in the well walls and in the reservoir.

The nature of the additional high-frequency wave attenuation, because of the threaded production tubing connections, should be measured experimentally. In principle, these disruptions should not be significant because their dimensions are much smaller than that of the wave-length of the propagating waves. Coiled-tubing microwave transmission should also be evaluated experimentally, in view of the possible wave reflections caused by the changes in the inner diameter of the tubing.

Electrical power losses in steel pipes used in the petroleum industry, either due to low frequency conduction currents, to induced Eddy currents and other losses in the pipes,[64] or to high frequency radiation transmitted through the pipe used as a waveguide, can be helpful in improving the oil flow in the pipe and avoiding deposits.

The optimal termination of a high-frequency transmission system to the reservoir material so as to achieve maximum power transfer is still a complex problem of antenna design in dissipative media.[65][66][67]

Finally, if electrical heating systems are used, the existence of electrical connections from the surface to the reservoir could be exploited fully in the development of downhole instrumentation systems.


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Noteworthy papers in OnePetro

Use this section to list papers in OnePetro that a reader who wants to learn more should definitely read

Hascakir, B., Babadagli, T., Akin, S., Field Scale Analysis of Heavy-Oil Recovery by Electrical Heating, SPE Reservoir Evaluation & Engineering, 13-1, 131-142, 2010, SPE 117669-PA.

Hascakir, B., Babadagli, T., Akin, S., Experimental and Numerical Modeling of Heavy-Oil Recovery by Electrical Heating, SPE International Thermal Operations and Heavy Oil Symposium, Calgary, Alberta, CANADA, 21-23 October 2008, SPE-117669.,

External links

Use this section to provide links to relevant material on websites other than PetroWiki and OnePetro

See also

Electromagnetic heating process

Electrical engineering considerations for electromagnetic heating of oil

Modeling fluid flow with electromagnetic heating

Field tests of electromagnetic heating of oil

In-situ combustion