Introduction to Heavy Oil: Genesis, Properties, Distribution, Recovery Technologies and Upgrading

Course Description

The course explores heavy oil, extra heavy oil, and bitumen, also known as viscous oil (VO), resource development including its genesis, physical and chemical properties, resources, reserves, geographical distribution, production, transport, upgrading, refining, future technology developments, and environmental impacts. There are over 9 trillion barrels of heavy oil, extra heavy oil, and bitumen oil known to exist in the world. By comparison, originally there were about 4.7 trillion barrels of conventional oil of which almost 1.2 trillion barrels have been processed to date. Canada and Venezuela alone possess over 30% of the world endowment. Since 1990 the VO in situ production industry has seen a number of startling advances. New production technologies, combined with developments in waste management, upgrading, monitoring and transportation have changed expectations. Now, it is a widely held view that 15-20% of the world’s VO resource base can be profitably produced with current technology; this ratio will rise as further technological advances are implemented. By 2030, VO’s contribution to the daily oil production will be about 17%. These figures show the importance of VO developments in the near future to fulfill a major part of the growing global demand for fossil fuels.

A summary of the main topics along with a brief description of the viscous oil resource, its size, production technology advances during the last few decades and environmental issues related to development of this vast resource. The terminology used herein, including terms alluding to VO physical properties (e.g. tar sands, heavy oil, extra- heavy oil, bitumen) and terms used to classify VO into categories such as known or assumed resources (OOIP), technical reserves, and proven, probable or possible reserves are defined. Chemical composition and physical properties play crucial roles in production technology selection as well as upgrading and refining technology selection. Chemical and physical properties of some VO’s are presented and the differences are discussed. Some of the proposed mechanisms for VO emplacement, followed by the genesis, physical and chemical properties and reservoir characteristics of the some major VO fields in several countries are outlined. The nature and development of different in situ production technologies including scientific and engineering challenges such as understanding geomechanics impacts on production or finding other heat sources for steam generation are addressed. Upgrading, refining techniques and transportation used in the VO industry is also highlighted. The environmental sustainability of VO development is also discussed.

Course Objectives

Upon successful completion of the course the attendants will be able to:

  • Describe genesis, physical, and chemical characteristics, and geographical distribution of heavy oil resources around the world;
  • Explain the major commercialized and emerging heavy oil recovery technologies;
  • Recall some examples of heavy oil recovery operations;
  • Describe major heavy oil upgrading technologies.

Course Outline

This course deals with:

  • Genesis, physical, and chemical characteristics;
  • Geographical distribution of heavy oil resources around the world;
  • Major heavy oil recovery technologies and recovery mechanisms;
  • Geomechanics effects;
  • Examples of heavy oil recovery operations;
  • Heavy oil upgrading technologies;
  • Environmental issues;
  • Technological challenges.

The course has foundation level, but is comprehensive. A more detailed outline can be provided on request (depending on level and duration of the course and also background of the course participants). The course can be delivered in 1-2 days or in 4-7 days with more details including problem solving sessions.

Participants’ Profile

The course is intended for engineers, geoscientists, and technologists active in E&P industry involved in exploration, production, transportation, upgrading and environmental management.


Knowledge of the oil industry and a good sense of physics and chemistry will be valuable.

About the Instructor

Dr Ali Shafiei is currently an Assistant Professor of Petroleum Engineering in Nazarbayev University, Astana, Kazakhstan. He obtained his PhD (March 2013) in “Thermal Heavy Oil Recovery and Petroleum Reservoir Geomechanics” from the University of Waterloo in Canada with a dissertation on: “Mathematical and Statistical Investigation of Steamflooding in Naturally Fractured Carbonate Heavy Oil Reservoirs”. The focus of his PhD research project was on developing mathematical and statistical tools to predict performance of steamflooding in naturally fractured heavy oil reservoirs as one of the very challenging classes of reservoirs in terms of reservoir behavior considering the complex production mechanisms involved and the interaction between the rock matrix and the fracture network. Shafiei is a specialist in reservoir characterization and formation evaluation, heavy oil recovery from complex reservoir systems, EOR, and petroleum geomechanics. Shafiei has over a decade of Canadian and international research, graduate supervision, teaching, training, and consulting/industry experience in the E&P industry. He was a scientific adviser to the Alberta Department of Energy (Alberta, Canada) in 2014 served as a member of the Innovative Energy Technology Program (IETP 2014) to review progress reports on various full field scale trials that the Alberta DoE was involved with various oil and gas companies in Canada on heavy oil recovery and geological CO2 sequestration. He is also a long time active member of the EAGE, SPE, and AAPG. As of today, Shafiei’s professional and academic experience has resulted in over 40 refereed journal papers, vetted conference proceedings, chapters in books and monographs in petroleum geosciences and engineering and reservoir geomechanics.