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ARMA 10-172

Rethinking of Shale Swelling Based on Interesting Test Results

Hong (Max) Wang, Halliburton
Halliburton, Houston, Texas, USA

Copyright 2010 ARMA, American Rock Mechanics Association

th th
This paper was prepared for presentation at the 44 US Rock Mechanics Symposium and 5 U.S.-Canada Rock Mechanics Symposium, held in
Salt Lake City, UT June 2730, 2010.
This paper was selected for presentation at the symposium by an ARMA Technical Program Committee based on a technical and critical review of
the paper by a minimum of two technical reviewers. The material, as presented, does not necessarily reflect any position of ARMA, its officers, or
members. Electronic reproduction, distribution, or storage of any part of this paper for commercial purposes without the written consent of ARMA
is prohibited. Permission to reproduce in print is restricted to an abstract of not more than 300 words; illustrations may not be copied. The
abstract must contain conspicuous acknowledgement of where and by whom the paper was presented.

ABSTRACT: Shale is troublesome for drilling. This is true partially due to its swelling characteristics when interacting with
water. However, shale swelling is a complicated matter and how shale swells is still not crystal clear to many engineers who deal
with wellbore instability issues daily. A simplified shale model has been built with equilibrium between osmotic pressure and
normal stress acting on the clay platelets by ignoring insignificant factors under practical drilling conditions. This new model
reveals that there are two distinct water bodies in swelling shale. Changing stress on the platelets will change the water distribution
and their water activities in these two water bodies. This model can explain observed stress sensitive activity phenomena reported
on swelling shale. The model provides a quantitative way to predict water activities for shale and a new and important equation for
improving wellbore stability analysis. With the model many other phenomena such as time-dependent wellbore swelling or tight-
hole can be better understood.
unchanged at various stresses, possibly generating
INTRODUCTION misleading results and conclusions.
Some say that 90% of wellbore instability comes from Furthermore, it is obvious that knowing shale water
shale, which comprises about 70% of the formations activities is the prerequisite for designing a water
drilled. Many studies have been attempted to address activity balanced mud for swelling control. However, lab
wellbore instability in shale drilling. These studies tests normally cannot provide a good number easily. It
include shale composition in terms of mineralogy, grain would be of great value if a mathematical equation could
grading, anisotropy of density, petrophysical properties be used to predict the value with acceptable accuracy
such as permeability, porosity, mechanical properties under downhole conditions. Such an equation may also
such as shear modulus and Poissons ratio, chemical be of significance for correlating water activities and
properties such as linear swelling coefficients and pore interpreting shale behaviors for lab tests.
water activities, etc.
It is normal for rock to have its anisotropy. Would shale
Shale is different from other rock types at least partially show swelling anisotropy or swelling with different
due to the fact that it tends to be water sensitive and may magnitudes in different directions? Can or should
start to swell when contacting water or water-based wellbore instability analysis take this into account to
drilling fluids. To maintain wellbore stability, one can better reflect the reality?
see that shale water sensitivity is of great importance for
engineers to understand. The major difference between To better understand shale swelling and improve our
shale and sandstone is that swelling shale contains ability to cope with swelling issues for drilling
swelling clays and clay swelling is more or less related engineering, a new shale model has been built to reflect
to water activities. the essentials of this special rock for wellbore stability.
This paper begins with the introduction of the model and
Lab tests on shale have indicated that water activities of the development of its underlined mathematical
some shales are sensitive to confining stress. However, equations. Then the model is used to explain those
similar tests on sandstone show no such sensitivity. This special phenomena observed from lab tests, followed by
intriguing phenomenon has not been well explained and discussions on shale tests, wellbore stability analysis,
further understanding on shale internal structures is etc. related to shale swelling.
needed. Many studies have been focused on shale
interactions with its surrounding fluids such as mud by
treating shale as a uniform subject with a water activity
WHAT IS SWELLING SHALE? concentrations of cations trapped by the negative
charges on the clay platelet surfaces, the platelet water
According to Wikipedia, shale is a fine-grained, clastic activity, aw,platelet, normally is low. Figure 2 is a model of
sedimentary rock composed of flakes of clay minerals
clay platelets in shale.
and tiny fragments of other minerals, especially quartz
and calcite. aw,platelet
The ratio of clay to other minerals is variable. Shale is
+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +
characterized by thin laminae or parallel layering or
bedding less than one centimeter in thickness. The Figure 2. Shale Swelling Clay Platelet Model
swelling characteristics come from its composition of
swelling clays, the majority of which is smectite. 3. A Pore-Platelet Unit (PPU)
Montmorillonite, a member of the smectite family, is a These two water bodies should be connected to each
2:1 clay, meaning that it has 2 tetrahedral sheets other inside a piece of shale in subterranean formations.
sandwiching a central octahedral sheet. The particles are Figure 3 is a model of a shale pore connecting to a
plate-shaped with an average diameter of approximately swelling clay platelet space. We can call it a pore-
one micrometre. The water content of montmorillonite is platelet unit or a PPU.
variable and it increases greatly in volume when it
absorbs water. Chemically it is hydrated sodium calcium H2O
aluminium magnesium silicate hydroxide + H2O
(Na,Ca)0.33(Al,Mg)2(Si4O10)(OH)2nH2O. Potassium, +
aw,platelet H2O H2O
+ H2O
iron, and other cations are common substitutes, the exact + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + H2O po - - -
ratio of cations varies with source. It often occurs + H2O
intermixed with chlorite, muscovite, illite, cookeite and H2O H2O

kaolinite. H2O -

Figure 3. Model of a Pore-Platelet Unit

1. Pore space 4. Force acting on the platelets
It is easy to visualize that shale contains pores. These To understand shale swelling, we have to understand
pores contain water. Of course, this water is not pure and those expanding and contracting forces acting on the
it may contain some dissolved salts. Therefore, it should clay platelets in normal subterranean drilling conditions.
have salinity and a water activity associated with the In summary, these are basically the following:
salinity. Figure 1 is a model of shale pores. There is
1) Expanding force
pore pressure, Po. Its water activity is aw,pore.
a. crystalline hydration
aw,pore b. electrostatic repulsion
c. osmotic swelling (assuming platelet
- water activity is lower)
+ H2O 2) Contracting force
H2O + H2O H2O a. van de Waals attraction
H2O H2O b. normal stress
H2O po - - -
H2O - Crystalline hydration occurs when clay platelets absorb
- +
H2O the first 3 to 4 layers of water molecules on the platelet
+ surface and become hydrated. Studies show that
H2O - compaction pressures for dehydration for the last layer
and the second layer of water molecules are about
70,000 and 25,000 psi [1]. The smectite-illite transition
Figure 1. Shale Pore Model would become fast at a depth of about 10,000 ft, below
which the smectite content reduces rapidly with depth
2. Platelet space [2]. With such a depth, the effective stress at maximum
Between swelling clay platelets, there is a space of is only about 5000 psi.
water, in which there are various cations trapped by the
negative surface charges on the platelets. Due to high
For drilling environments, in shale, the first several from a solution of lower solute concentration (higher
layers of water molecules always exist. Crystalline water potential) to the other solution with high solute
hydration therefore is basically insignificant to drilling. concentration (low water potential), up a solute
concentration differential.
In shale, negatively charged clay platelet surfaces are
initially at least close to being neutralized by adsorbing For an example of an osmotic system with a CaCl2
cations. When such a platelet is placed in fresh water, solution and pure water in Figure 5, when a semi-
water starts to flow in and expansion starts. When clay permeable membrane exists, due to the higher activity of
platelet spaces expand to a certain distance, hydrated water in the pure water side, water molecules tend to
cations will diffuse away. The platelet then becomes move to the solution side. If no increase in volume on
electrostatically negative. Then electrostatic repulsion the other side is allowed, pressure has to be applied to
appears. However, before this happens, the cations must balance this tendency caused by the water activity
be hydrated with enough water molecules to become differential. This pressure generated is the osmotic
diffusible. pressure. However, if there is no such semi-permeable
membrane, ions will be moving freely as well as the
As demonstrated in Figure 4, it seems that electrostatic
water molecules, so no osmotic pressure can be
repulsion would only be significant when clay platelets
are fully hydrated, many cations diffuse away or much
platelet expansion has happened. A good example of this In a clay platelet space, cations are associated with the
may be a concentrated water-based clay mud. Under in- platelets by electrostatic adsorption. There may be a few
situ subterranean conditions, clay platelets are not cations in the pores. However, these cations should have
allowed to expand enough to favor such cation diffusion. reached equilibrium with those in the platelet spaces
For shale swelling regarding wellbore instability, under the subterranean conditions. Trapped cations in
electrostatic repulsion between shale clay platelets seems the platelet spaces will not diffuse away until much
to be small. expansion has happened. Before cation diffusion, the
system has a similar function to a typical osmostic
system. Cations are kept in the platelet space and only
water molecules are free to move in and out. In other
words, the clay platelets provide a cation trapping
mechanism, which serves a function similar to a semi-
permeable membrane in a regular osmotic system. This
means that in this mid-range of clay swelling process in
shale, a semi-permeable membrane is not necessary for

Figure 4. Cation Diffusion from a Clay Platelet Space

Van de Waals attraction will reduce in strength with

distance substantially. For the condition regarding
drilling, this force seems to be relatively small, and we
can very likely ignore it without affecting our accuracy
for drilling engineering purposes.
Furthermore, forces generated from crystalline Ca
hydration, electrostatic repulsion and van de Waals Cl
attraction may offset one another somewhat and result in
an even smaller contribution to shale swelling.
Osmosis is defined as the diffusion of a solvent Figure 5. An Osmotic System
(frequently water) through a semi-permeable membrane,
Due to the enrichment of cations by the heavily This should apply for swelling shale under a majority of
negatively charged platelet surface, the water activity in drilling conditions based on the above analysis.
this platelet space can be much lower than the water
The above indicates that there are two different water
activity inside a pore. Due to this water activity
bodies in swelling shale. Therefore, using a single shale
differential in this osmotic system, water in the pore
water activity to study or describe shale swelling
tends to flow to the platelet space. When this happens,
properties is at best not complete. There should be
the platelet space will expand.
platelet water and pore water activity, respectively.
Shale contains very fine particles. Clay is part of the These two water activities should be different and in
supporting grains of shale. In other words, stress acting equilibrium with the normal stress acting on the platelet
on a piece of shale should also be transmitted to clay under general subterranean conditions.
platelets in shale. The normal stress acting on clay
Shale may be comprised of much swelling clay. So a
platelets then act against their expansion.
piece of shale can be viewed as a collection of many
So in summary for drilling applications, crystalline PPUs. This can be depicted as in Figure 7. Inside a
hydration, van de Waals attraction and electrostatic piece of shale, there should be PPUs in various
repulsion are very likely not significant for wellbore directions including horizontal, vertical and other
stability analysis. At equilibrium, shale swelling can be random directions according to a random deposition
simply depicted with a balance between osmotic environment.
pressure and normal stress acting on the platelets. This
stress-pressure equilibrium can be represented in Figure
6 and it can be mathematically defined for lab result
correction and wellbore stability studies.
5. A new equation to define shale swelling for drilling

+ H2O
aw,platelet n H2O + H2O

H2O po - -
+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + -

H2O -
- + Figure 7. Shale Model with many PPUs
H2O -
It is probably a good assumption for modeling that these
pores from different PPUs in a piece of swelling shale
Figure 6. A PPU in Pressure-Stress Equilibrium
are connected since any unconnected pore should not
contribute to swelling. Due to the lack of semi-
As shown in Figure 6, lets assume the pressure in the
permeable membranes between pores, they should all
pore is Po. Due to the water activity differential, an
have the same pressure and water activity.
osmotic pressure exists and it makes the pressure inside
platelet space as PI. Then the osmotic pressure A piece of shale in a formation sustains three principal
differential P = PI Po = RT/(VMwln(aw,platelet/aw,pore)). stresses. Due to the orientation of the platelets, the stress
Here R is the gas constant and T is temperature and VMw on various platelets should be different. For a piece of
is water molar volume. aw,platelet and aw,pore are the water subterranean swelling shale, it carries a vertical principal
activities for platelet fluid and pore fluid respectively. stress, v, and two horizontal principal stresses, H and
On the platelet side, in equilibrium, we should have a h.
normal stress, n, acting on a clay platelet and n = PI, or For PPUs lying horizontally, the platelets sustain the
n Po = PI Po = P. Then we have n Po = vertical stress. For PPUs lying vertically, the platelets
RT/(VMwln(aw,platelet/aw,pore)). n Po = n is the same as sustain the horizontal stresses. For those not lying in
the effective stress in the same direction at the grain- these principal stress directions, the magnitudes of
grain contacts in the poro-elastic rock mechanics normal stress acting on the platelets can be determined
concept. Then we can have the following: with those principal stresses.
aw,platelet = aw,poreexp(VMw/(RT)* n). (1) If we assume all PPUs are the same in platelet size,
charge density, etc., it is easy to understand that the
platelet spaces in different orientations should be
This equation mathematically describes the relationship
different and reflecting the magnitudes of their normal
between water activities and stress for the PPU model.
stress on the platelets.
For a PPU sustaining the vertical principal stress, its Experiments were done with shale samples at room
water activity is as follows: temperature and atmosphere pore pressure but increased
confining stresses [4]. This test system allowed the pore
(aw,platelet)v = aw,poreexp(VMw/(RT)* (v - Po)). (2)
fluid exposed to the normal ambient pressure. With
higher confining stresses, water was squeezed out of test
For one sustaining the minimum horizontal principal
samples and its activity was measured. From the tests, it
stress, its water activity is as follows:
was summarized that, out of the four different shale
(aw,platelet)h = aw,poreexp(VMw/(RT)* (h - Po)). (3) samples, the fluid squeezed out of the system was more
diluted or its water activity increased with confining
For one sustaining the maximum horizontal principal stress. A list of experiment results on a Speeton shale
stress, its water activity is as follows: sample is shown in Table 1. However, this trend was not
(aw,platelet)H = aw,poreexp(VMw/(RT)* (H - Po)). (4) observed on all the sandstone sample tests with the same
test protocol. The water activity of the fluid squeezed out
It is clear that platelet water activities in different of the sandstone samples remained constant regardless
platelets should be different, however, for engineering how much confining stress was applied clearly due to its
purposes without knowing the details, some may like to lack of swelling clays or PPUs.
treat it as a whole by averaging swelling potentials and, Table 1. Discharged Pore Fluid Water Activities at
with this approach, we can have an average platelet Various Confining Stresses [4]
water activity for a piece of shale as follows:
(aw,platelet)ave = aw,poreexp(VMw/(RT)* ((v + H + h)/3 - Po)). Speeton shale
(5) T, degF c, psi aw
75 0 0.811
Rojas et al [3] have shown an equation for calculating 75 1000 0.834
shale water activities based on principal stresses with a 75 2000 0.860
correction factor aw,c. The equation is as follows: 75 3000 0.888
75 4000 0.914
aw,shale = aw,cexp(VMw/(RT)* ((v + H + h)/3 - Po)). (6)

By comparing Equations 5 and 6, one finds that their However, it has been well observed that, in general, in
shale water activity aw,shale is very likely an average aw subterranean formations, shale water activity goes up
for shale clay platelets. The correction factor aw,c now with buried depth. A correlation has even been built to
has a physical meaning: shale pore water activity. relate shale water activities with overburden stress [5].
Equations 2~5 show that a meaningful average water This experiment result seems to be in conflict with the
activity for shale clay platelets can be defined by correlation. However, with this new shale model, it is
knowing shale pore water activities and its stress very simple to explain this phenomenon and resolve the
environment. The obtained result is probably accurate conflict. When higher stress is applied, more fluid would
enough for drilling engineering purposes. be squeezed from platelet spaces into pores. Due to the
platelet charge-trapping mechanism, only water
These equations imply that, at zero effective stress, the molecules move from the platelet to the pore and this
pore water activity is the same as that of the platelet causes the dilution of the pore water or the increase of its
water. This data point correlates with a condition for a water activity. In the experiment, the measured water
shale sample at ambient pressure and with no confining activity is for the pore water rather than the platelet
stress applied. This may deviate from reality somewhat water. At the same time, the chemical potential
since the model omits effects from tensile strength. differential across a PPU is increasing, and it generates a
However, due to the fact that tensile strength will not higher osmotic pressure that then achieves equilibrium
come into play before confining stresses have been with the higher stress.
overcome, tensile strength should not be an important
factor. Furthermore, sedimentary rocks normally do not The model also shows that in the subterranean condition,
have a large tensile strength, so the error probably is during deposition, the platelet stress should be getting
tolerable in many cases for an engineering purpose. If higher and this decreases the platelet water activity. The
more accuracy is needed, with this equation and tensile correlation [5] attempted to calculate shale water
strength, it is still possible to define the pore water activities is actually about the shale platelet water
activity at zero effective stress. activity.
6. Proof From Table 1, based on Equation 5, the platelet water
activities at different stress levels can be calculated by
assuming only NaCl was present in the solution as an internal swelling. A real example of internal swelling is
example. The results are shown in Figure 8. what water-wet shale cuttings may undergo while being
transported uphole in a pure non-aqueous fluid drilling
Shale Water Activities vs. Confining Stress
The second one is swelling with a supply of water to the
0.9 shale body. With a supply of water, when stress
Water Activity

reduction happens, platelet spaces expand and pore
water flows into platelet spaces, and water from outside
the system flows into the pores. During this process, due
0.6 to the external supply of water, the shale body can have
0.5 a substantial amount of swelling. We can call this
0 1000 2000 3000 4000 5000 external swelling. A real example of external swelling is
Confining Stress, psi
what water-wet shale cuttings may undergo while being
Pore fluid water activity Platelet fluid water activity transported uphole in an aqueous fluid environment.
Figure 8. Measured and Calculated Water Activities 2. Shale cuttings expansion and dispersion in an aqueous
drilling environment
In Figure 8, the blue line indicates water activity values
measured during the experiment and the red line During drilling, cuttings contact mud along their way
indicates the platelet water activity values calculated uphole. The confining stress around cuttings is
with Equation 5. Each pair of data indicates the pore decreasing during this process and this generates a water
water activity and platelet water activity of the subject flowing tendency from pores to platelet spaces. If the
shale sample under a different stress condition at mud is water-based, water molecules can flow into the
ambient temperature. The trend of the two lines clearly pores and provide a supply of water. If this supply can
indicates that with increased confining stress, the pore be cut off or delayed, cuttings swelling and dispersion
water activity increases while the platelet water activity can be mitigated. Increasing water phase viscosity or
decreases. The new shale model explains the experiment providing superfine pore plugging particles to stop or
observation very well. slow down the water supply then should provide control
on cuttings dispersion.
Sandstone normally does not contain swelling clays. It
lacks this stress sensitive water activity mechanism 3. Wellbore swelling
provided by PPUs, and its water activity therefore will When a borehole is created, stress is redistributed around
not change with stress. Some sandstone may contain a the wellbore. Even when no wellbore fluid is allowed to
little swelling clay. However, due to the huge particle flow into the wellbore formation, internal swelling will
size difference between a clay particle and a sandstone occur if a water supply from the far-field formation to
grain, the sandstone grains basically support the total the near wellbore area is allowed for water
effective stress acting on the rock. As long as this is true, redistribution. So it is still possible to see tight-hole
clay contained in sandstone is basically under zero phenomena for drilling swelling shale with non-aqueous
effective stress conditions at all time. When the stress fluids when much stress in the radial direction is
does not act on the clay platelets, the sandstone pore released at the near wellbore area. Due to the low
water activity should not have any sensitivity to stress at permeability, it would take some time for water from the
all. far field to flow to the near wellbore region causing the
swelling. Therefore, it would be a time-dependent
4. Lab measurement for shale water activity
1. Internal swelling and external swelling
We need to know the formation shale water activity to
With the above analysis, it can be seen that there may be design water phase salinity for a non-aqueous fluid. We
two different types of shale swelling. The first one is may have to cut a sealed core to measure its water
swelling without a supply of water to the shale body. In activity. However, if the shale water activity is a
this case, due to the stress reduction, platelet spaces may function of stress, we may have to restore the stress after
expand and pores may contract. Due to the lack of measurement to know exactly what it is. Many previous
supply of water to the system, water in pores and platelet lab tests that consider one water activity for shale may
spaces may just redistribute in the shale and the pore and need to be revisited to help ensure that the conclusions
platelet fluid water activity then change accordingly. In are still sound.
this swelling process, the entire shale volume may not
change much; however, there should be localized 5. Changing of SBM water activity during drilling
swelling where stress has been reduced. We can call this
During a drilling process, in general, in a non-aqueous 8. The model and equation may be used to better
drilling fluid there is a non-continuous water phase. simulate wellbore instability for drilling design.
Though water in synthetic-based mud would not flow
directly into the tiny shale pores, it can pass through a
semi-permeable membrane formed by surfactants by ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
means of osmosis. In this case, the cuttings swelling is
The author thanks Halliburton management for
actually external swelling. Though perhaps slowed
permitting the publication of the paper. The author also
down, water still can get into the shale cuttings to
would like to thank those researchers working on shale
provide a supply of water for swelling. Due to the flow
for his learning, without which it would be impossible to
of water from mud to cuttings in this manner, it should
have written this paper.
be anticipated that the water phase salinity tends to get
higher with on-going drilling progress.
SUMMARY (aw,platelet)H Water Activity for Platelets on Which the
Maximum Horizontal Stress is Acting
1. A collection of many Pore-Platelet Units (PPUs) is (aw,platelet)h Water Activity for Platelets on Which the
used to build a simplified shale model for understanding Minimum Horizontal Stress is Acting
shale swelling for drilling engineering purposes. (aw,platelet)v Water Activity for Platelets on Which the
Vertical Stress is Acting
2. The new shale model defines two distinct water aw,c Correction Factor for Shale Water Activity
bodies platelet water and pore water within a piece of Calculation
swelling shale, related to which are two water activities. aw,platelet Platelet Water Activity
What has been frequently referred to as shale water aw,pore Pore Water Activity
activity is actually the platelet water activity. aw,shale Shale Water Activity
degF Degree Fahrenheit
3. Lower water activity in a platelet space is maintained PI Pressure inside a Platelet Space
by a higher concentration of cations trapped by the Po Pore Pressure
negatively charged platelet surface. Due to this PPU Pore-Platelet Unit
mechanism, a semi-permeable membrane is not psi Pound per Square Inch
necessary for osmosis within a PPU. R Gas Constant
SBM Synthetic Based Mud
4. Though there are several interactions that may affect T Temperature
swelling of a platelet space, for drilling purposes, it VMw Water Molar Volume
seems that osmotic swelling is much more significant P Pressure Differential
than others and decent accuracy may be achieved while c Confining Stress
ignoring those other interactions. This osmosis is within H Maximum Horizontal Stress
a PPU and differs from what has been referred to as h Minimum Horizontal Stress
osmosis between a piece of shale and its surrounded n Normal Stress
fluid. n Effective Normal Stress
v Vertical Stress
5. A stress-pressure equilibrium equation is constructed
mathematically, and it can be useful for predicting shale
platelet water activities and correlating platelet and pore REFERENCES
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