Effects of heterogeneities on capillary pressure-saturation-relative permeability relationships

Behzad Ataie-Ashtiani, S. Majid Hassanizadeh, Michael Anthony Celia

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72 Scopus citations


In theories of multiphase flow through porous media, capillary pressure-saturation and relative permeability-saturation curves are assumed to be intrinsic properties of the medium. Moreover, relative permeability is assumed to be a scalar property. However, numerous theoretical and experimental works have shown that these basic assumptions may not be valid. For example, relative permeability is known to be affected by the flow velocity (or pressure gradient) at which the measurements are carried out. In this article, it is suggested that the nonuniqueness of capillary pressure-relative permeability-saturation relationships is due to the presence of microheterogeneities within a laboratory sample. In order to investigate this hypothesis, a large number of "numerical experiments" are carried out. A numerical multiphase flow model is used to simulate the procedures that are commonly used in the laboratory for the measurement of capillary pressure and relative permeability curves. The dimensions of the simulation domain are similar to those of a typical laboratory sample (a few centimeters in each direction). Various combinations of boundary conditions and soil heterogeneity are simulated and average capillary pressure, saturation, and relative permeability for the "soil sample" are obtained. It is found that the irreducible water saturation is a function of the capillary number; the smaller the capillary number, the larger the irreducible water saturation. Both drainage and imbibition capillary pressure curves are found to be strongly affected by heterogeneities and boundary conditions. Relative permeability is also found to be affected by the boundary conditions; this is especially true about the nonaqueous phase permeability. Our results reveal that there is much need for laboratory experiments aimed at investigating the interplay of boundary conditions and microheterogeneities and their effect on capillary pressure and relative permeability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)175-192
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Contaminant Hydrology
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - 2002

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Water Science and Technology
  • Environmental Chemistry


  • Capillary pressure
  • Effective parameters
  • Heterogeneity
  • Porous media
  • Relative permeability
  • Saturation
  • Two-phase flow
  • Upscaling


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