Petrophysics (petro is Latin for "rock" and physics is the study of nature) is the study of the physical and chemical properties that describe the occurrence and behavior of rocks, soils and fluids [1]. Petrophysics mainly studies reservoirs of resources, including ore deposits and oil or natural gas reservoirs. Petrophysicists in the oil and gas industry typically are employed in helping the engineers and other geoscientists understand the rock properties of the reservoir. Petrophysicists evaluate the reservoir rock properties by employing well log measurements, in which a string of measurement tools are inserted in the borehole, core measurements, in which rock samples are retrieved from subsurface, and sometimes seismic measurements, and combining them with geology and geophysics.

Petrophysical studies are used by petroleum engineering, geology, mineralogy, exploration geophysics and other related studies.

Some of the key properties studied in petrophysics are lithology, porosity, water saturation, permeability, density, solid mechanics, magnetization, electrical conductivity, thermal conductivity and radioactivity.

While most petrophysicists work in the oil and gas industry, some also work in the mining and water resource industries. The properties measured or computed fall into three broad categories: conventional petrophysical properties, rock mechanical properties, and ore quality.

Conventional petrophysical properties

Most petrophysicists are employed to compute what are commonly called conventional (or reservoir) petrophysical properties. These are:

Lithology: What type of rock is it. When combined with local geology and core study, geoscientists can use log measurements such as natural gamma, neutron, density, Photoelectric, resistivity or their combination to determine the lithology downhole.

Porosity: \(\phi\) The amount of pore (or fluid occupied) space in the rock. This is typically measured using an instrument that measures the reaction of the rock to bombardment by neutrons or by gamma rays. Sonic wave speed and NMR logs are also measured to derive rock porosity.

Water saturation: \(S_w\)The fraction of the pore space occupied by water. This is typically measured using an instrument that measures the resistivity of the rock.

Permeability: The quantity of fluid (usually hydrocarbon) that can flow from the rock as a function of time and pressure. Formation testing is so far the only direct downhole permeability measurement. In case of its absence, which is common in most cases, permeability estimation is derived from other measurements, such as porosity, NMR, sonic, by empirical correlations.

Thickness of rock with enough permeability to deliver fluids to a well bore. This property is often called “Net reservoir rock.” In the oil and gas industry, another quantity “Net Pay” is computed which is the thickness of rock that can deliver hydrocarbons to the well bore at a profitable rate.

Reservoir models are built upon their measured and derived properties to estimate the amount of hydrocarbon present in the reservoir, the rate at which that hydrocarbon can be produced to the Earth’s surface through wellbores and the fluid flow in rocks. In the water resource industry, similar models are used to compute how much water can be produced to the surface over long periods of time, without depleting the aquifer.

Rock mechanical properties

Some petrophysicists use acoustic and density measurements of rocks to compute their mechanical properties and strength. They measure the compressional (P) wave velocity of sound through the rock and the shear (S) wave velocity and use these with the density of the rock to compute: The rocks compressive strength which is the compressive stress that causes a rock to fail. The rocks flexibility, the relationship between stress and deformation for a rock. Converted-wave analysis is also used to determine subsurface lithology and porosity.

These measurements are useful to design programs to drill wells that produce oil and gas. The measurements are also used to design dams, roads, foundations for buildings and many other large construction projects. They can also be used to help interpret seismic signals from the Earth, either man-made seismic signals or those from earthquakes.

Ore quality

Bore holes can be drilled into ore bodies (for example coal seams or gold ore) and either rock samples taken to determine the ore or coal quality at each bore hole location or the wells can be wireline logged to make measurements that can be used to infer quality. Some petrophysicists do this sort of analysis. The information is mapped and used to make mine development plans.

Methods of analysis

Coring and core analysis is a direct measurement of petrophysical properties. In the petroleum industry rock samples are retrieved from subsurface and measured by core labs of oil company or some commercial core measurement service companies. This process is time consuming and expensive, thus can not be applied to all the wells drilled in a field.

Well Logging is used as a relatively inexpensive method to obtain petrophysical properties downhole. Measurement tools are conveyed downhole using either wireline or LWD method.

An example of wireline logs is shown in Figure 1. The first “track”, shows the natural gamma radiation level of the rock. The gamma radiation level “log” shows increasing radiation to the right and decreasing radiation to the left. The rocks emitting less radiation have more yellow shading. The detector is very sensitive and the amount of radiation is very low. In clastic rock formations, rocks that have smaller amounts of radiation are more likely to be coarser grained and have more pore space, rocks with higher amounts of radiation are more likely to have finer grains and less pore space (Poupon, Clavier, Dumanoir, Gaymard, and Misk, Journal of Petroleum Technology, July, 1970, page 868).

The second track over in the plot records the depth below the reference point which is usually the Kelly bush or rotary table in feet, so these rocks are 11,900 feet below the surface of earth.

In the third track, the electrical resistivity of the rock is presented. The water in this rock is salty and the salt in the water causes the water to be electrically conductive such that lower resistivity is caused by increasing water saturation and decreasing hydrocarbon saturation (Brown, A Mathematical Comparison of Common Saturation Equations, SPWLA twenty-seventh annual logging symposium, June, 1986, paper T, appendix 1).

The fourth track, shows the computed water saturation, both as “total” water (including the water bound to the rock) in magenta and the “effective water” or water that is free to flow in black. Both quantities are given as a fraction of the total pore space.

The fifth track shows the fraction of the total rock that is pore space, filled with fluids. The display of the pore space is divided into green for oil and blue for movable water. The black line shows the fraction of the pore space which contains either water or oil that can move, or be “produced.” In addition to the what is included in blackline, the magenta line includes the water that is permanently bound to the rock.

The last track is a representation of the solid portion of the rock. The yellow pattern represents the fraction of the rock (excluding fluids) that is composed of coarser grained sandstone. The gray pattern represents the fraction of rock that is composed of finer grained “shale.” The sandstone is the part of the rock that contains the producible hydrocarbons and water.

Rock volumetric model for shaly sand formation

Symbols and Definitions:

Figure 2, a petrophysical rock model for clastic rock formation

The following definition and petrophysics model are a typical shaly sand formation model which assumes: 1. Shale is composed of silt, clay and their bounded water which will not flow. 2. Hydrocarbon are stored only in pore space in sand matrix.

ΦT - Total porosity (PHIT), which includes the pore space in sand and shale.

Sw - Total water saturation, the fraction of the pore space occupied by water.

Φe - Effective shale corrected porosity which includes only the pore space in sand. The pore space in shale which is filled with bounded water is excluded.

Swe - Effective shale corrected water saturation. The volumetric fraction of Φe which is occupied by water.

Vsh - Volumetric fraction of shale. This includes medium to very fine silt plus clay and the shale bound water.

Φsh - Shale porosity. Volumetric fraction of pore space in shale. These pore space is filled with bounded water by definition.

Key equations:

(1-Φe-Vsh) + Vsh + Φe*Swe + Φe*(1-Swe) = 1

Sandstone matrix volume + shale volume + water volume in sand + hydrocarbon volume in sand = total rock volume

Φe = ΦT – Vsh *Φsh

See also


  • Guéguen, Yves; Palciauskas, Victor (1994), Introduction to the Physics of Rocks, Princeton University Press, ISBN 978-0-691-03452-2
  • Mavko, Gary; Mukerji, Tapan; Dvorkin, Jack (2003), The Rock Physics Handbook, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-54344-6
  • Santamarina, J. Carlos; Klein, Katherine A.; Fam, Moheb A. (2001), Soils and Waves: Particulate Materials Behavior, Characterization and Process Monitoring, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., ISBN 978-0-471-49058-6

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