Diffusion Osmosis-An Unrecognized Cause of Shale Instability

Authors J.P. Simpson (O'Brien-Goins-Simpson and Associates, Inc.) | H.L. Dearing (O'Brien-Goins-Simpson and Associates, Inc.)
DOI https://doi.org/10.2118/59190-MS
Document ID SPE-59190-MS
Publisher Society of Petroleum Engineers
Source IADC/SPE Drilling Conference, 23-25 February, New Orleans, Louisiana
Publication Date 2000


Problems encountered while drilling shale formations are a major factor in the cost of oil and gas wells. A principal cause of the problems has been shown to be the transfer of water and ions from water-based drilling fluids to shale formations. Prior studies have documented two driving forces involved in such transfer. One is the hydraulic pressure differential between the drilling fluid and shale pore fluid. A second is a chemical osmotic force dependent upon the difference between the water activity (vapor pressure) of the drilling fluid and that of the shale pore fluid under downhole conditions. Generally unrecognized is another driving force, diffusion osmosis, which is determined by the difference in concentrations of the solutes in the drilling fluid and shale pore fluid. Diffusion osmosis results in transfer of solutes and associated water from higher to lower concentration for each species, opposite to the flow of water in chemical osmosis. If the diffusion osmotic force exceeds the chemical osmotic force, invasion of ions and water can increase the pore pressure and water content of the shale near the borehole surface. Additionally, the invading ions can cause cation exchange reactions that alter the clay structure in the shale. All of these effects tend to destabilize the shale.

Destabilizing ionic reactions within a shale can be minimized if a suitable nonionic polyol (such as methyl glucoside) is used to reduce the activity of a fresh-water drilling fluid. In certain situations the addition of salt to such a fresh-water drilling fluid to obtain further reduction of water activity can cause an increase in the diffusion osmotic force that offsets some, or all, of the desired increase in chemical osmotic force. This now is recognized to have probably been a factor when sodium chloride was included in the formulation of a methyl glucoside drilling fluid used with moderate success for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

Chemical osmotic effectiveness can be improved by emulsification of a non-aqueous phase in the drilling fluid. A fresh-water drilling fluid containing methyl glucoside for activity control and emulsified pentaerythritol oleate prevented hydration and maintained stability of Pleistocene shale from the Gulf of Mexico. Drill cuttings from such a drilling fluid should be environmentally acceptable for discharge at offshore or land locations.


Interactions of water-based drilling and completion fluids with shale formations have long been recognized as a major factor in the cost of finding and producing oil and gas. Much progress has been made in understanding the mechanisms responsible for the destabilization of shale and subsequent problems such as high torque, stuck pipe, lost circulation and cementing failures. In most instances the problems can be avoided by use of hydrocarbon-based drilling fluids, but the use of those fluids are now being curtailed because of environmental concerns. The excellent shale stability provided by hydrocarbon-based fluids has been attributed in part to the establishment of an essentially ideal semipermeable membrane at the drilling fluid/shale interface. The membrane has openings large enough to allow water molecules to pass, but small enough to prevent passage of dissolved ions and molecules. This results in development of an osmotic pressure differential which is dependent upon the ratio of water activity (escaping tendency) of the drilling fluid (adf) to that of the shale pore fluid (as).1 The transfer of water is from the higher water activity (lower concentration of dissolved ions or molecules) to the lower water activity. Solutes, such as calcium chloride, can therefore be added to the water phase of a hydrocarbon-based emulsion fluid to reduce the water activity and develop enough osmotic force to prevent shale hydration, or even extract water from shale. This mechanism for water transfer is commonly designated chemical osmosis.