The emergence of hydrocarbons within shale as a major recoverable resource has sparked interest in fluid transport through these tight mudstones. Recent studies suggest the importance to recovery of microfracture networks that connect localized zones with large organic content to the inorganic matrix. The paper presents a joint modeling and experimental study to examine the onset, formation, and evolution of microfracture networks as shale matures. Both the stress field and fractures are simulated and imaged.
A novel laboratory-scale, phase-field fracture propagation model was developed to characterize the material failure mechanisms that play a significant role during the shale rock maturation process. The numerical model developed consists of coupled solid deformation, pore pressure, and fracture propagation. Benchmark tests were conducted to validate model accuracy. Laboratory-grade gelatins with varying Young’s modulus were used as scaled-rock analogs in two-dimensional Hele-Shaw cell setups. Yeast within the gelatin generates gas in a fashion analogous to hydrocarbon formation as shale matures. These setups allow study and visualization of host rock elastic-brittle fracture and fracture network propagation mechanisms. The experimental setup was fitted to utilize photoelasticity principles coupled with birefringence properties of gelatin to explore visually the stress field of the gelatin as the fracture network developed. Stress optics image analysis and Linear Elastic Fracture Mechanics (LEFM) principles for crack propagation were used to monitor fracture growth for each gelatin type.
Observed and simulated responses suggest gas diffusion within and deformation of the gelatin matrix as predominant mechanisms for energy dissipation depending on gelatin strength. LEFM, an experimental estimation of principal stress development with fracture growth, at different stages was determined for each gelatin rheology. Synergy between diffusion and deformation determines the resulting frequency and pattern of fractures. Results correlate with Young’s modulus. Experimental and computed stress fields reveal that fractures resulting from internal gas generation are similar to, but not identical to, type 1 opening mode.
The novelty of our work is that microfracture networks are imaged and modeled as they form rather than measured after the fact. Host rock elastic-brittle fracture and fracture network propagation mechanisms are triggered by internal gas generation, microfracture frequency, connectivity, and topology are linked to material properties in a direct fashion.