Spontaneous potential

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Spontaneous potential (SP), also called self potential, is a naturally occurring electric potential difference in the Earth, measured by an electrode relative to a fixed reference electrode. Spontaneous potentials are often measured down boreholes for formation evaluation in the oil and gas industry, and they can also be measured along the Earth's surface for mineral exploration or groundwater investigation. The phenomenon and its application to geology was first recognized by Conrad Schlumberger, Marcel Schlumberger, and E.G. Leonardon in 1931, and the first published examples were from Romanian oil fields.

An electric potential is the amount of work needed to move a unit of charge from a reference point to a specific point inside the field without producing an acceleration. Typically, the reference point is the Earth or a point at infinity, although any point can be used.

Well logging, also known as borehole logging is the practice of making a detailed record of the geologic formations penetrated by a borehole. The log may be based either on visual inspection of samples brought to the surface or on physical measurements made by instruments lowered into the hole. Some types of geophysical well logs can be done during any phase of a well's history: drilling, completing, producing, or abandoning. Well logging is performed in boreholes drilled for the oil and gas, groundwater, mineral and geothermal exploration, as well as part of environmental and geotechnical studies.

In petroleum exploration and development, formation evaluation is used to determine the ability of a borehole to produce petroleum. Essentially, it is the process of "recognizing a commercial well when you drill one".



Spontaneous potentials (SP) are usually caused by charge separation in clay or other minerals, due to presence of semi-permeable interface impeding the diffusion of ions through the pore space of rocks, or by natural flow of a conducting fluid through the rocks.

The origin of SP across formation can be attributed to two processes involving the movement of ions:

  1. Streaming potential (Ek)
  2. Electrochemical potential (Ec)

Streaming potential originates from the flow of an electrolyte (water) over naturally charged solids (i.e., surfaces that acquired electrokinetic or zeta potential). The streaming potential appears when mud filtrate is forced into the formation under the differential pressure between mud column and formation. The streaming potential is produced when the flow takes place across mud-cake in front of permeable formations, across permeable formations being invaded, and across shale beds. It is generally accepted that the streaming potential across the mud-cake is compensated by that across the shale. As such, in most cases, the spontaneous potential measured is only related to the electrochemical potential.

Electrochemical potential (EC) is the sum of liquid junction or diffusion potential (EJ), and membrane potential (EM)

Fig1: Electrochemical Potential: Liquid junction & membrane potential SP MembraneAndLiquidJunctionPotential, small.png
Fig1: Electrochemical Potential: Liquid junction & membrane potential

Liquid junction potential is established at the direct contact of the mud filtrate and formation water at the edge of the invaded formation. Ions Na+ and Cl diffuse from either solution to the other, but at different rate due to different mobilities. Na+ tends to be less mobile due to its affinity for water molecules.

EJ = K1 log10(aw/amf)


K1 = 11.6 mV at 25 °C
aw = formation water ionic activity
amf = mud filtrate ionic activity

Membrane Potential develops when two electrolytes of different ionic concentrations, such as mud and formation water, are separated by shale. The clay minerals in shale are usually made up of atom Al, Si, and O. O2− ions occupy the outer layer and cause a net negative charge. Na+ ions from solution are attracted and allowed to pass through the shale, while Cl ions are repelled. Na+ ions will migrate between the two solutions, with a net influx from the more saline to the less.

EM = K2 log10(aw/amf)


K2 = 2.3 RT/F, where:
R = ideal gas constant
T = absolute temperature in kelvins
F = Faraday constant
aw = formation water ionic activity
amf = mud filtrate ionic activity

The total electrochemical potential is thus summarized as EC = EM + EJ = K log10(aw/amf)

Since spontaneous potential is a measure of electrochemical potential and the ionic activity of a solution is inversely proportional to its resistivity, the above equation can be simplified as SP = EC = K log10 (Rmfe/Rwe), where Rmfe and Rwe are equivalent mud filtrate resistivity and equivalent formation water resistivity respectively.

The ideal spontaneous potential across clean bed is known as Static SP (SSP), and defined as follow:

SSP = −K log10 (Rmfe/Rwe)

Applications in Boreholes

The most useful SP component is the electrochemical potential, since it can cause a significant deflection opposite permeable beds. The magnitude of the deflection depends mainly on the salinity contrast between borehole and formation fluid, and the clay content of the permeable bed. The SP log is therefore useful in detecting permeable beds and to estimate formation water salinity and formation clay content. Due to the nature of the electric current, SP can only be recorded in conductive mud.

Electric current flow of electric charge

An electric current is the rate of flow of electric charge past a point or region. An electric current is said to exist when there is a net flow of electric charge through a region. In electric circuits this charge is often carried by electrons moving through a wire. It can also be carried by ions in an electrolyte, or by both ions and electrons such as in an ionized gas (plasma).

Determination of Rw

As established earlier, static SP is defined as follow:

SSP = −K log (Rmfe/Rwe)

Static SP (SSP) can be obtained directly from the SP curve if the bed is clean, thick, porous, permeable, and only moderately invaded. When these conditions are not met, the recorded SP will need to be corrected. Various correction charts are available for this purpose.

To convert the measured mud filtrate resistivity Rmf into an equivalent mud filtrate resistivity Rmfe, the following rules are employed:

Ohm SI derived unit of electrical resistance

The ohm is the SI derived unit of electrical resistance, named after German physicist Georg Simon Ohm. Although several empirically derived standard units for expressing electrical resistance were developed in connection with early telegraphy practice, the British Association for the Advancement of Science proposed a unit derived from existing units of mass, length and time and of a convenient size for practical work as early as 1861. The definition of the ohm was revised several times. Today, the definition of the ohm is expressed from the quantum Hall effect.

Schlumberger Chart SP-2 can then be used to convert Rwe to obtain Rw.

Applications on the surface

Electrodes can be placed on the ground surface to map relative changes in the SP value (in millivolts, or mV), typically with the goal of identifying the path of groundwater flow in the subsurface, or seepage from an earthen dam. A voltmeter measures the voltage between a fixed liquid-junction electrode and a mobile one (rover), which is moved along a dam face or over an area of investigation to collect multiple readings. Anomalies observed may indicate groundwater movement or seepage. [1]

Volt SI derived unit of voltage

The volt is the derived unit for electric potential, electric potential difference (voltage), and electromotive force. It is named after the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta (1745–1827).

Groundwater water located beneath the ground surface

Groundwater is the water present beneath Earth's surface in soil pore spaces and in the fractures of rock formations. A unit of rock or an unconsolidated deposit is called an aquifer when it can yield a usable quantity of water. The depth at which soil pore spaces or fractures and voids in rock become completely saturated with water is called the water table. Groundwater is recharged from the surface; it may discharge from the surface naturally at springs and seeps, and can form oases or wetlands. Groundwater is also often withdrawn for agricultural, municipal, and industrial use by constructing and operating extraction wells. The study of the distribution and movement of groundwater is hydrogeology, also called groundwater hydrology.

Dam A barrier that stops or restricts the flow of surface or underground streams

A dam is a barrier that stops or restricts the flow of water or underground streams. Reservoirs created by dams not only suppress floods but also provide water for activities such as irrigation, human consumption, industrial use, aquaculture, and navigability. Hydropower is often used in conjunction with dams to generate electricity. A dam can also be used to collect water or for storage of water which can be evenly distributed between locations. Dams generally serve the primary purpose of retaining water, while other structures such as floodgates or levees are used to manage or prevent water flow into specific land regions. The earliest known dam is the Jawa Dam in Jordan, dating to 3,000 BC.


SP can be affected by several factors that complicates the interpretation. Beside petrochemical component, SP is also affected by electrokinetic potential and bimetallism. Besides, SP is also affected by the following factors:

Measurement technique

Spontaneous potential can be measured by placing one probe of a voltmeter at the Earth's surface (called surface electrode) and the other probe in the borehole (called downhole electrode), where the SP is to be measured. In fact, logging tools employ exactly this method. Since this measurement is relatively simple, usually SP downhole electrode is built into other logging tools.

Voltmeter instrument used for measuring electrical potential difference

A voltmeter is an instrument used for measuring electrical potential difference between two points in an electric circuit. Analog voltmeters move a pointer across a scale in proportion to the voltage of the circuit; digital voltmeters give a numerical display of voltage by use of an analog to digital converter.

See also

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The change in voltage through the well bore is caused by a buildup of charge on the well bore walls. Clays and shales will generate one charge and permeable formations such as sandstone will generate an opposite one. Spontaneous potentials occur when two aqueous solutions with different ionic concentrations are placed in contact through a porous, semi-permeable membrane. In nature, ions tend to migrate from high to low ionic concentrations. In the case of SP logging, the two aqueous solutions are the well bore fluid and the formation water. The potential opposite shales is called the baseline, and typically shifts only slowly over the depth of the borehole.

Effective porosity is most commonly considered to represent the porosity of a rock or sediment available to contribute to fluid flow through the rock or sediment, or often in terms of "flow to a borehole". Porosity that is not considered "effective porosity" includes water bound to clay particles and isolated "vuggy" porosity. The effective porosity is of great importance in considering the suitability of rocks or sediments as oil or gas reservoirs, or as aquifers.

Drilling fluid invasion is a process that occurs in a well being drilled with higher wellbore pressure than formation pressure. The liquid component of the drilling fluid continues to "invade" the porous and permeable formation until the solids present in the mud, commonly bentonite, clog enough pores to form a mud cake capable of preventing further invasion.

Resistivity logging is a method of well logging that works by characterizing the rock or sediment in a borehole by measuring its electrical resistivity. Resistivity is a fundamental material property which represents how strongly a material opposes the flow of electric current. In these logs, resistivity is measured using 4 electrical probes to eliminate the resistance of the contact leads. The log must run in holes containing electrically conductive mud or water.

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  1. Corwin, R. F., 1990, The self-potential method for environmental and engineering applications, in Ward, S. H., editor, Geotechnical and Environmental Geophysics, Volume I: Review and Tutorial, Society of Exploration Geophysicists, Tulsa, OK