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The Penetration of a Fluid into a Porous Medium or Hele-Shaw Cell Containing a More Viscous Liquid

P. G. Saffman , Geoffrey Taylor


When a viscous fluid filling the voids in a porous medium is driven forwards by the pressure of another driving fluid, the interface between them is liable to be unstable if the driving fluid is the less viscous of the two. This condition occurs in oil fields. To describe the normal modes of small disturbances from a plane interface and their rate of growth, it is necessary to know, or to assume one knows, the conditions which must be satisfied at the interface. The simplest assumption, that the fluids remain completely separated along a definite interface, leads to formulae which are analogous to known expressions developed by scientists working in the oil industry, and also analogous to expressions representing the instability of accelerated interfaces between fluids of different densities. In the latter case the instability develops into round-ended fingers of less dense fluid penetrating into the more dense one. Experiments in which a viscous fluid confined between closely spaced parallel sheets of glass, a Hele-Shaw cell, is driven out by a less viscous one reveal a similar state. The motion in a Hele-Shaw cell is mathematically analogous to two-dimensional flow in a porous medium. Analysis which assumes continuity of pressure through the interface shows that a flow is possible in which equally spaced fingers advance steadily. The ratio $\lambda $= (width of finger)/ (spacing of fingers) appears as the parameter in a singly infinite set of such motions, all of which appear equally possible. Experiments in which various fluids were forced into a narrow Hele-Shaw cell showed that single fingers can be produced, and that unless the flow is very slow $\lambda $= (width of finger)/(width of channel) is close to $\frac{1}{2}$, so that behind the tips of the advancing fingers the widths of the two columns of fluid are equal. When $\lambda =\frac{1}{2}$ the calculated form of the fingers is very close to that which is registered photographically in the Hele-Shaw cell, but at very slow speeds where the measured value of $\lambda $ increased from $\frac{1}{2}$ to the limit 1$\cdot $0 as the speed decreased to zero, there were considerable differences. Assuming that these might be due to surface tension, experiments were made in which a fluid of small viscosity, air or water, displaced a much more viscous oil. It is to be expected in that case that $\lambda $ would be a function of $\mu $U/T only, where $\mu $ is the viscosity, U the speed of advance and T the interfacial tension. This was verified using air as the less viscous fluid penetrating two oils of viscosities 0$\cdot $30 and 4$\cdot $5 poises.

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