Both laboratory and single well field tests have documented that enhanced oil recovery can be obtained from sandstone reservoirs by performing a tertiary low saline waterflood. Due to the complexity of the crude oil-brine-rock interactions, the mechanism behind the low saline EOR process has been debated in the literature for the last decade. Both physical and chemical mechanisms have been proposed, but it appears that none of the suggested processes has so far been generally accepted as the main contributor to the observed low salinity EOR effect. Based on published data and new experimental results on core flooding, effects of pH and salinity on adsorption of acidic and basic organic components onto different clay minerals, clay properties like ion exchange capacity and selectivity, and oil properties, a new chemical mechanism is suggested, which agrees with documented experimental facts. At reservoir conditions, the pH of formation water is about 5 due to dissolved acidic gases like CO2 and H2S. At this pH, the clay minerals, which act as cation exchange material, are adsorbed by acidic and protonated basic components from the crude oil, and cations, especially divalent cations from the formation water, like Ca2+. Injection of a low saline fluid, which promotes desorption of Ca2+, will create a local increase in pH close to the brine-clay interface because Ca2+ is substituted by H+ from the water. A fast reaction between OH- and the adsorbed acidic and protonated basic material will cause desorption of organic material from the clay. The water wetness of the rock is improved, and increased oil recovery is observed.
To observe low salinity EOR effects in sandstones, a balanced initial adsorption of organic components and Ca2+ onto the clay is needed. Both the adsorption capacity and the pH-window for adsorption/desorption of organic material is somewhat different for various types of clay minerals. A detailed knowledge of the chemical mechanism behind the low saline EOR process together with information on formation brine composition, oil properties and type of clay material present, will make it possible to evaluate the potential for increase in oil recovery by a low salinity waterflood.