Experimental investigation of flow field past a spherical particle settling in viscoelastic fluids using particle image shadowgraphy techniques studies have shown that the settling velocity of particles in viscoelastic fluids decreased significantly with the increasing elasticity of the fluids. However, our understanding of how and why the change in fluid elasticity influences the particle settling velocity are not yet fully developed. An experimental study, therefore, has been conducted to understand the reasons behind why the settling velocity of the particles decrease with the increasing fluid elasticity. The main objectives were: (i) to investigate the fluid flow field behind the settling particle by using particle image velocity (PIV) technique; (ii) to understand the changes caused by the elasticity of the fluid on the flow field past the settling particle; (iii) more specifically, to determine how the fluid velocity profile and the resultant drag forces acting on the settling particle change with the increasing fluid elasticity.

Two different viscoelastic fluids were formulated by mixing 3 grades of HPAM polymer (MWs: 500,000; 8,000,000; 20,000,000; concentrations: 0.09% and 0.1%wt). The fluids were designed to have almost identical shear viscosity but significantly different elastic properties. The shear viscosity and elasticity of the fluids were determined by performing shear viscosity and frequency sweep oscillatory measurements, respectively. The settling velocities of the spherical particles in viscoelastic polymer fluids were measured by using particle image shadowgraph technique. The fluid flow field behind the settling particle was determined by using the PIV technique.

Results of the PIV measurements demonstrated that negative wakes were present in viscoelastic fluids. The stagnation point (i.e. the point where the velocity becomes zero and above that the fluid starts moving in the direction opposite to the particle movement) was closer to the particle settling in the higher elasticity fluid than that in the lower elasticity fluid. The velocity of the fluid in the recirculation region was higher for the flow of the fluid with higher elasticity. The presence of negative wakes having fast moving fluid in the reverse direction near the settling particle possibly creates an additional drag force (acting on the particle in the direction opposite the particle movement), which would eventually slow down the settling particle.

Knowledge of the settling behavior of particles is indispensable to design and optimize numerous industrial operations such as cuttings transport in oil and gas well drilling and proppant transport in hydraulic fracturing. In this study, by conducting experiments under controlled conditions, we were able to show how the change in fluid elasticity influenced the particle settling velocity. The results from this fundamental study can be used for development of optimum drilling and fracturing fluid formulations for effective transport of cuttings and proppants.

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