Hydraulic fracturing is an effective stimulation method to establish high-conductivity channels in tight reservoirs, and the effectiveness of man-made fractures largely depends on the proppant-carrying capacity of the fracturing fluids used. As a novel completion fluid, silica gel-based fracturing fluids have shown desirable stimulation effect in application cases, but a comprehensive evaluation of their proppant settling and transport behaviors in the laboratory remains lacking. In this paper, a silica gel-based fracturing fluid was prepared first, and then the rheological properties, including shear thinning, recovery behavior, and viscoelasticity of the fluid system, were measured. Afterward, the settling velocity of single-particle proppant and the settling rate of multiparticle proppant under various experimental conditions were investigated in the static fluid system; in addition, the dynamic proppant-carrying performance was evaluated using a visualized rough fracture model to study different factors on the dune distribution inside the fractures. Lastly, the proppant-carrying mechanism of silica gel-based fracturing fluid was revealed in three aspects. The rheological test result showed that the shear viscosity of silica gel-based fracturing fluid increased as the SiO2 concentration increased. Furthermore, all tested fluid samples exhibited an elastic modulus that is consistently greater than the viscous modulus, indicating that the silica gel-based fracturing fluid system has a dominant elastic response behavior. In the single-particle static settling test, there was a significant increase in the settling velocities as the particle diameter increased and as the temperature increased. Meanwhile, the settling rate of multiparticles showed a decreasing trend with the increase in mesh size, while the proppant settling rate gradually increased as the proppant concentration rose. The results of dynamic proppant-carrying experiments demonstrate that a higher pumping rate leads to an extended migration distance for proppant, resulting in formed sand dunes with reduced height within fractures. Conversely, an increase in proppant concentration and a reduction in mesh size tend to form higher sand dunes. The proppant-carrying mechanisms of the silica gel-based fracturing fluid relate to the self-polymerization and syneresis of silica gel, the noticeable elasticity characteristics, and the structural encapsulation effect formed between silica gel and proppant. A better understanding of the proppant settling and transport behaviors of silica gel-based fracturing fluid can be helpful in optimizing the hydraulic fracturing design and promoting field application.

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