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SPE 91787

SPE 91787 Field- S cale Pol y m e r Floodin g : L esso n

Field-Scale Polymer Flooding: Lessons Learnt and Experiences Gained During Past 40 Years

Y. Du, SPE, New Mex ico Institute of Mining and T echnology, and L. Guan, SPE, Texas A&M Universit y

Copyright 2004, Society of Petroleum Engineers Inc.

This paper was prepared for presentation at the 2004 SPE International Petroleum Conference in Mexico held in Puebla, Mexico, 8–9 November 2004.

This paper was selected for presentation by an SPE Program Co mmittee following review of information contained in a proposal submitted by the author(s). Contents of the paper, as presented, have not been reviewed by the Society of Petroleum Engineers and are subject to correction by the author(s). The material, as presented, does not necessarily reflect any position of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, its officers, or me mbers. Papers presented at SPE meetings are subject to publication review by Editorial Committees of the Society of Petroleum Engineers. Electronic reproduction, distribution, or storage of any part of this paper for commercial purposes without the written consent of the Society of Petroleum Engineers is prohibited. Permission to reproduce in print is restricted to a proposal of not more than 300 words; illustrations may not be copied. The proposal must contain conspicuous acknowledgment of where and by who m the paper was presented. W rite Librarian, SPE, P.O. Box 833836, Richardson, TX 75083-3836, U.S.A., fax 01-972-952-9435.

Ab stract

Early in 1964, Pye a nd Sandiford established the fact that polymer flooding ca n result in greater oil recover y tha n the conve ntional water flooding. Many additional papers sustaining a nd e xtending this infor mation ha ve since appeared in the literature. In the past forty years, ma ny field-sc ale polymer flooding proj ects have been put into production and lots of infor mation has bee n available fro m which to draw conclusions regarding o f lesso ns learnt a nd experiences gained on field-scale polymer-flooding. T he purpose of this paper is to examine the ra nge s of so me important parameters within whic h succe ssful polymer flo oding has been achieved and to present lesso ns learnt and best practices on polymer flooding, thus direct to design a nd further achie ve a high-perfor ma nce polymer-flooding proj ect.

Introduction M echanisms of Poly mer Flo oding In the reservoir, oil and wat er are immiscible fluid s. As a result, neither one ca n co mp letely displace the other in the subsurface conditio n. T his is reflected by the no n-zero irreducible water (S wir ) a nd residual oil saturatio n (S or ) on an oil-water relative -per meability c urve. In the lab, no matter ho w large volume of water has been inj ected into a core, the oil saturatio n will never be lo wer tha n S or only b y the conve ntional wa ter flooding. Ho we ver, it ha s been kno wn for many years that the efficienc y of a water flooding ca n be greatly improved by lo wering the water-oil mobility ratio in the system. Such a change ma y lead to better sweep efficie nc y and also to more efficient oil displaceme nt in the swept zone. B y adding of suitable polymer solutions to inj ected water, the water mobility ca n be reduced and oil recovery increased as sho wn in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Cluster Type Residual Oil by Pol ymer Flooding and [1] Water Flooding.
Figure 1. Cluster Type Residual Oil by Pol ymer Flooding and
Water Flooding.

During polymer flooding, a water-soluble polymer is added to the inj ected wate r in order to increase wa t er viscosity. Depending o n the type of polymer used, the effec tive per meability to wat er can be reduced in the swept zones to differe nt de grees. It is believed that polymer flooding cannot reduce the S or , but it is still an e fficie nt wa y to reach the S or more quickly or/and more economically. According to Rile y B. Needham [2] , polymer solutions ma y lead to an increase in oil recovery o ver that fro m a conve ntional wa ter flooding by three potential wa ys: (1) through the effects of polymers o n fractional flo w, (2) b y decreasing the water/oil mob ility ratio, a nd (3) by diverting the inj ected water fro m zo nes that ha ve been s wept. T he above three effects can make the polymer flooding process more efficient. Early pilot studies on polymer flooding can be traced back to 1944. Detling [3] (Shell De velop me nt Co.) obtained a U.S. patent covering the use of se veral additive s for visco us water flooding. His obj ective was to increase the viscosity of the flooding water and then to improve wa ter-oil mobility ratios. During the ne xt two decades, ma ny studies [4-13] ha ve sho wn up like mushroo ms a nd ma ny patents ha ve been gra nt ed covering specific water-so luble polymers or specific conditions o f viscous wa ter flooding in the world. In 1964, Pye and Sa ndiford [14] published the fact that the mobility o f the brine used in water flooding was greatly reduced by the additio n of ve ry small amounts of hydrolyz ed polyacr ylamide, a water-soluble polymer. T his reduction in brine mobility re sulted in greater oil recovery tha n that attributable to conve ntiona l water flooding. Ma ny additio nal


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papers sustaining and extending this information have since appeared in the literature [15-25] . All of these studies laid a solid theoretical foundation for the polymer flooding in the field scale practices. However, field scale practice of polymer flooding is a technically sophisticated process and is usually muti-million dollar investment. For this reason, a thorough knowledge of the reservoir and the applicability of the polymer flooding are essential to the success of the project. Reservoir rock and fluid properties determine the mechanism and the effectiveness of a specific polymer flooding process displacing the reservoir oil and water from the formation. In addition, the project must indicate an adequate rate of return on the investment. Oil recovery, price of crude, cost of chemicals, and cost of wells and equipment are important in making economic evaluations. We will further discuss the reservoir characteristics favorable to polymer flooding in detail later.

Polymer Types and Properties

Polymers that have been used in actual polymer flooding can be classified into two general types: synthetic polymers and biopolymers. A synthetic polymer at most times means polyacrylamides. Polyacrylamide is a condensation polymer with an unusual property. The structure of polyacrylamide is similar to that of polyethylene, but have a hydrogen on every other carbon replaced by an amide group, –CONH 2 . The molecule is composed of repeating –CH 2 –CH(CONH 2 )– units. The amide groups allow for linking between polymer strands. The – CONH 2 group from one molecule can react with the same group of another molecule, forming a link between them with the structure –CONHCO–. This produces a network of polymer chains, like a tiny sponge. The free, unlinked amide groups, because they contain –NH 2 groups, can form hydrogen bonds with water molecules. This gives the tiny cross-linked sponges a great affinity for water. Polyacrylamide can absorb many times of its mass in water. Ionic substances, such as salt, cause polyacrylamide to release its absorbed water. A variety of polyacrylamides are available from several manufacturers. In general, the performance of a polyacrylamide in a flooding situation will depend on its molecular weight and its degree of hydrolysis. In a partially hydrolyzed polyacrylamide, some of the acrylamide is replaced by, or converted into, acrylic acid. This tends to increase viscosity of fresh water, but to reduce viscosity of hard waters. Biopolymer is derived from a fermentation process, rather than by direct synthesis from their monomers in a chemical reactor. The most commonly encountered biopolymer is xanthan gum, which is produced by the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris. In terms of molecular weight, biopolymers fall toward the low end of the range encountered with polyacrylamides. Their molecular structure gives the molecule great stiffness. This characteristic gives biopolymer excellent viscosifying power in high-salinity waters and makes them very resistant to shear degradation. In very fresh waters, however, they have less viscosifying power than polyacrylamides.

Reservoir Conditions Favorable to Polymer Flooding

To date, some field polymer flooding information has been available from which to draw conclusions regarding the most suitable/favorable reservoir and fluid characteristics for polymer flooding applications. The purpose of this paper is to examine the ranges of some important parameters within which successful polymer flooding has been achieved, and to present lessons learnt and best practices on polymer flooding, thus direct to design and further achieve a high-performance polymer-flooding project. While analyzing the applicability of polymer flooding to a given reservoir, the importance of a complete understanding of the reservoir and fluid characteristics cannot be overemphasized. Such characteristics as the mobility ratios, permeability and its variation, porosity, the fluid saturation, the relative permeability, the formation temperature and pressure, the formation type, the rock minerals and water properties can have a dramatic effect on the success or failure of the flooding process. Each reservoir must be analyzed in light of its own properties and characteristics. The following are some critical factors to be considered while designing a polymer-flooding project.

Mobility Ratio

Mobility ratio here means the brine mobility at residual oil saturation to the oil mobility at irreducible water saturation. Published successful tests have occurred in the range from 0.1 to 42. In terms of oil viscosity, the highest record value is 126 cp for which success has been achieved.


The level of reservoir permeability and permeability variation can have great influence on the success of a polymer-flooding project. Reservoir permeability dominates the water injection rate, which will in turn control well spacing and project life. The well spacing and project life affects the economics of the project. In other words, all else being equal, the projects of a very low permeability reservoir developed on 2-acre spacing definitely will not perform as good as a relative high permeability reservoir developed on 5-acre spacing. Polymer solutions used for flooding have lower injectivities than the solvent brine because of their high viscosity and reduced mobility. Usually this effect is compensated for by the increased volumetric displacement efficiency of the polymer solutions so that flood life is not extended. However, under pressure-limited conditions, as often encountered in shallow, low-permeability reservoirs, decreased injectivity may be an economic problem. As a rule of thumb, cares should be taken if polymer flooding is conducted with a very low average permeability reservoir. The range of average permeabilities in which successful floods have been conducted is from 20 md to 2,300 md. Permeability variation (Dykstra-Parsons V-factor) lies in the range from 0.28 to 0.80.

Effective Porosity

Effective porosity here only refers to the porosity involving connected void space, whereas total porosity involves total void space whether connected or not. Effective porosity can be

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further classified as intercrystalline – intergranular porosity and fracture matrix porosity. The type and nature of porosity may have considerable influence on recovery efficiency by polymer flooding. For a given oil saturation, porosity determines the oil in place and the volume of recoverable oil present and thus directly affects the economics of the process. In addition, porosity also determines the total amount of polymer needed for a given flooding operation. In addition, the nature of the pore surfaces and space is also very important in determining the flow and adsorption or retention characteristics of the reservoir rock. The relative absence or presence of clays in the pore spaces and in the pore throats will have considerable effect on the flow behavior and permeability of the reservoir rock. Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) studies are an invaluable tool in the study of porosity in sandstone reservoir rocks.

Mobile Oil Saturation

In general, low mobile oil saturation is an adverse factor for polymer flooding as well as for water flooding. Simulation results of polymer floods by Needham [2] indicate that mobile oil saturation is a key variable to determine whether a polymer flood can be successful. Heterogeneous reservoirs containing oil, which could be produced at high WOR, have significant volume of remaining mobile oil. They are good candidates for polymer flooding. However, successful polymer floods have been observed in the mobile oil saturation range from 0.15 to 0.46, an extremely wide range.

Initial Water Saturation

It has been stated in some literature that high initial water

saturations can be deleterious to polymer flooding. However, some projects were successful in spite of their high initial water saturations, even as high as 0.47.

Depth — Temperature and Pressure

Reservoir depth usually controls the temperature and initial pressure (in normal pressure system) of a reservoir. Favorable temperature may keep polymer stable without degradation. The deepest and hottest successful flood was operated at 6,500 ft and 229 o F. There seems limited reason to believe that greater depths and higher temperatures cannot be polymer- flooded successfully, provided that the usual precaution is observed to maintain an absolutely oxygen-free system (0.0 ppm) by chemical means. However, reservoirs with temperatures above 300 o F should be avoided because of polymer decomposition above that point, even in the absence of oxygen.

Depletion Stage

Economic and technical successes have been reported for polymer floods in both secondary and primary applications. On the basis of published results to date, secondary floods recover substantially more oil with less polymer usage than

tertiary floods. Polymer flooding is therefore best to be applied in the early life of a water flood. The average preference of floods initiated at WOR > 10 appears to be significantly lower. Projects started near the end of primary depletion tended to be more successful than that started during the secondary recovery stage. The earlier polymer flooding is initiated in the flood life, the more likely it will be successful.

Formation Type

Successful floods have been conducted in both sandstone and oolitic limestone formations. Grossly vugular limestones have been avoided because laboratory evidence indicates that no appreciable resistance effect can be generated in these rocks. Economic and technical successes have been reported for polymer floods in both sandstones and carbonates.

Rock Minerals

The presence of different minerals can affect the efficiency of the process. Certain clays swell when contacted with non- equilibrium waters and can have drastic effects on water and polymer injectivity. In addition, in the case of a preflush, ion exchange with the clays can increase the concentration of multivalent ions seen by the micellar solution. Gypsum (CaS0 4 *2H 2 0) is a slightly water-soluble mineral present in some reservoirs. However, the volubility of calcium can possibly be high enough to cause precipitation of petroleum sulfonate and to react with polyacrylamide, which reduces the viscosity of the polymer solution and reduces the efficiency of the flooding. Similarly, other clays can reduce the effectiveness of a miceller-polymer flood by adsorbing surfactant, by adding calcium to the flooding solution, and by adsorbing polymer, all of which have a negative effect on the flooding process. The presence of clay minerals is very important. In the consideration of micellar-polymer flooding, a high concentration of clay minerals can increase the ion exchange capacity of the rock and thus affect both the micellar and polymer slug behavior. It is imperative that a thorough mineralogy study be conducted on the reservoir prepared for polymer flooding.

Water Salinity

The salinity of reservoir brines can either be a favorable or unfavorable effect on some polymers and micellar solutions depending on the total salt concentration and the concentration and type of monovalent and divalent salts in the reservoir brine. The degradation of micellar solutions can be accelerated by the precipitation of petroleum suifonates in the slug as they contact reservoir brines containing multivalent ions such as calcium and magnesium. Micellar solutions can be designed to be compatible with reservoir brines. However, if care is not taken in the design, multivalent ions in the brine can cause the micellar solution to break up into a water phase and oil rich phase or may cause the precipitation of surfactants.


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Figure 2. Effect of salinity on the viscosity of 0.05 percent [27] pol ymer solution .
Figure 2. Effect of salinity on the viscosity of 0.05 percent
pol ymer solution

T he viscosity o f partially hydrolyzed polyacr ylamide polymers is quite sensitive to both the brine and the presence of multivalent io ns. Figure 2 illustrate s the e ffect o f salinity on the viscosity of Do w Pusher 500 and 700 polyacr ylamide solutio ns [26] . T he loss in viscosity, when a polymer conta cts the high concentration reservoir brine or divalent ions, results in increa sing mobility o f the buffer solution, whic h ma y re sult in fingering and other displaceme nt ine fficie ncies. As stat ed previously, a preslug is ofte n inj ected to displace the reservoir brine. Where co mpatibility prese nts no problem, the use o f a fresh wa ter source rather tha n more saline brine can lead to lo wer conce ntratio n requirements, he nce lo wer polymer co sts, for the same mobility e ffect.

Poly mer Selection

Polym er type selection

All else being eq ual, a high-molecular-we ight polymer will produce higher viscosities a nd resistance factors tha n a low- molecular-weight polymer fo r a give n conce ntration. T hese potential advantage s ma y be offset b y a greater tende nc y for shear degradation, which red uces mo lecular weight, and by a reduced inj ectivity, whic h can be significa nt in lo w- permeability for ma tions. For large-scale applicatio ns, polyacr ylamides are a vailable in po wder for m (90% + ac tive), in the for m o f a pumpable inverse emulsio n (33 to 55% active), or can be manufactured on site in a concentrat ed solutio n for m. Each polymer type has ad vanta ges a nd disad vanta ge s. Polyacr ylamide s ha ve a relatively lo w price, develop good viscosities in fresh wa ters, and adsorb on the rock surface to produce a long-lasting permeability reduction (the resid ual resista nce effect). T heir prima ry disadva nta ges are a tende nc y to shear degradation at high flo w rate s and poor performa nce in high-sa linity water (lo w viscosity and freque ntly e xcessive retention). T he primar y adva nta ges o f biopolymer are their excelle nt viscosifying po wer in high-salinity wa ters and their resista nce to shear degradatio n. Biopolymers are not retained

on rock surface s and thus propagate more readily into a for matio n than polyacr ylamid es. T his ca n reduce the amount of polymer required for a flo od but sometimes it also mea ns that there is limited residua l resista nce effect. Both polymer types are restri cted in the range o f reservoir condition where the y can be effective. Biopolymer ther ma lly degrades too fa st at temperatures above 200 o F (93 o C). At temperatures above 170 o F (77 o C), polyacr ylamides ma y precipitate in waters conta ining too muc h calcium. In principle, this does not preve nt their being used succe ssfully in fresh water, but make s co ntrol of the salinity of the flood wat er much more critical. T he results fro m polymer core flooding ha ve indicated that the polymer molec ular weight is a ver y important parameter in increasing the viscosity of the polymer solutio n and reduc ing the water per meability. T he higher the polymer mo lecular weight, the higher the viscosity o f the polymer solutio n, the more the per meability is re duced, and the higher the oil recover y that will be achieve d. But if the polymer molec ular weight is too high, the polymer ma y plug the for mation pore space as it flo ws through it. In order to find the optimal polymer weight, whic h is suitable for a certain for ma tion pore space, the matc hing relation between the polymer molecular weight a nd the reservoir permeability must first be studied. A r ule of thumb is that whe n five times the gyra tion radius o f the polymer molecule is smaller tha n the median size o f the pore space of the reservoir, the polymer molecule will not plug the for matio n pore space. A good practice is 1). Analyze the data of the core take n fro m the polymer flood area and find out the lo wer limit value of the per meability in which 75% o f the net thic kne ss is swept out b y the polymer flood. 2). According to mercur y inj ection data, the median pore space radius is determined, whic h corresponds to the lo wer limit permeability. 3). T he suitabl e polymer molec ular weight is determined fro m the relation betwee n the molecular weight and permeability. All of the tests included in the tables used an esse ntially linear, highly soluble, partially hydrolyzed polyacr ylamide as the mobility control age nt. Considerable variation in the properties of this ma terial is possible, particularly in the higher molecular weight. I n reservo irs with high per meability, the polymers with higher molec ul ar weights are o ften preferred in order to achieve an adequate resistance factor. In other reservoirs, conversion fro m the existing polymer type to a recently a vailable polymer of higher molec ular weight has allo wed reduction in conce ntration to achie ve the same resista nce effect with a considerable cost reduction. Practical considerations for the polymer solution are that [28] : (1) it must be inj ectable into the reservoir, (2) it must sur vive, a nd (3) it must be a ble mo ve thro ugh the reservoir and provide the required visco sity.

Concentration of the polym er slugs

On co ndition o f the same amount of polymer inj ected, the more heteroge neous the reservoir is, the better the displaceme nt results with a po lymer slug of high conce ntration compared to that of lo w conc entration [29] . With an increa se of the inj ected slug co ncentratio n, cumulative fluid inj ection for the e ntire period of polymer flooding decrease s and the

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amplitude of water cut reduction of the produced fluid increases. For this case, the oil recovery increases 0.4 and the lowest water cut decreases 10% when the concentration of the polymer solution injected increases from 400 mg/L to 800 mg/L; while only 0.l% for oil recovery and 7.8% for water cut with a concentration increase from 800 mg/L to 1,200 mg/L. The infectivity of the polymer solution decreases with a rise of injection pressure caused by the high concentration of the polymer slug. There are some special cases. Given the reservoir rock and fluid properties prevalent in the Hale and Mable leases, a low–concentration polymer flood is just as a higher-concentration flood as long as the total pounds of polymer injected is the same by Hovendlck, M. [30] . For the same volume of the polymer injected, we can use high-concentration small slug or the low-concentration large slug. Evaluation of the high-concentration small slug vs. the low-concentration large slug was done by simulating a single- pattern consisting of 20 layers with crossflow only at the wellbore [31] . Oil displacement was by fractional flow, and areal sweep was imposed according to mobility ratio correlations. Polymer viscosity was treated in terms of resistance factor polymer retention was successfully included.

Slug Size

Successful projects have used slug sizes varying from 7 percent PV to 33 percent PV. Smaller slug sizes have been

tested, thus far without success.

Combination of the Polymer Slugs

Because a small amount of polymer injected results in a small size polymer slug in the reservoir, it is easy for the post

water slug to breakthrough the polymer slug. Thus a sufficient amount of polymer injected as a mobility control is needed. However, under condition of a large amount of polymer injected, it is difficult for the post water slug to breakthrough the polymer slug. Therefore, the effect of mobility control is not as obvious as that for small amounts of polymer injected.

Quality Control

A good program for quality control is helpful and necessary in the field to minimize the chance for formation plugging and to ensure that the injected fluids meet the design specifications. Fortunately, a good quality control program requires only relatively simple tests. Important quality control parameters can be held to reasonable tolerances throughout the life of a polymer project Viscosity control is critical to a successful polymer project. The viscosity test insures that the polymer is properly mixed and that its viscosity falls within the specified range. These quality control tests are run frequently during the start-up phases. After operating procedure was worked out and the mixing procedures become routine, one or two quality checks per day should normally be sufficient.

Unsuccessful Floods Observation

The following summarized some possible published reasons for the failure of polymer flooding. Tertiary stage. The unsuccessful floods were undertaken in reservoirs that had been extensively flooded by other

processes. When the polymer flooding initiated, the hydrocarbon resource in place was limited. Hence, resulted in poor performance. High oil viscosity. Oil viscosities are high. As indicated

under the discussion of successful floods, the highest Oil viscosity in which success has been achieved to date is 126 cp. Extremely small polymer slug. The polymer slug is too small to improve the flooding efficiency. The conclusion to be drawn from former studies is that slug sizes smaller than 7 percent PV have not been successful.

Injectivity problems.





injectivity. Especially for the shallow reservoirs with low average permeability, the water injectivity is low. If polymer were added to the water, the injectivity will be very low. The low injectivity makes it harder to maintain the reservoir pressure by limited number of injectors.

Best Practices

Several key steps may be taken during the designing and

implementation of the field scale project to increase the probability of a successful polymer flood.

  • 1. Reservoir characteristics. Reservoir characteristics were

studied in detail before polymer flooding was identified as a

potential method of improving flood performance and recovery efficiencies. Adverse reservoir characteristics were

identified early during the planning of the project [2, 27, 28 and 32] .

  • 2. Laboratory tests. Laboratory tests were conducted to (1)

identify polymers, (2) optimize polymer concentration, (3) quantify polymer degradation and retention, (4) help to design polymer slug, optimize the does of biocides and oxygen

scavengers [29, 32 and 33]


  • 3. Fractional flow calculations. Fractional flow

calculations were useful screening guides to estimate polymer

flooding potential.

  • 4. Simulation. Computer simulation was used to design

the optimal polymer concentration and slug size [32, 33] .

  • 5. Tests. Pressure transient tests may be used to improve

reservoir description [32] . Polymer injection tests were conducted to: (1) determine sustained rates and pressures, (2) measure in-situ polymer viscosity, and (3) evaluate the physical handling of flake and liquid polymers. Field injectivity tests were essential to determine polymer injectivity and provided evidence about the polymer molecular weight and viscosity. These tests may support laboratory and computer observations.

  • 6. Quality control. Four quality and performance control

measures were instituted [32] : a polymer quality control

laboratory was built at the delivery point, a production evaluation laboratory were constructed at the field to monitor injected and produced fluids, well test data were frequently obtained with computer-controlled test satellites, and maximum field withdrawal was assured with computer controlled pumpoff controls. Bacterial control in polymer solutions sometimes may appear attainable according to

laboratory results but could not be sustained in the field.

  • 7. Continues efforts and close field monitoring .

Successful field implementation requires continuous efforts and close field monitoring to improve the efficiency and

effectiveness of the polymer EOR techniques.


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  • 3. Detling, K. D.: “Process of Recovering Oil from Oil Sands”, U. S. Patent No. 2,341,500, Feb. 8, 1944.

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8, Vori Enerigelhardt, W., Trommsdort, E. and Turin, W.: “Process

for Increasing the. “Yield of Oil Upon the Flooding with Water of Oil Deposits”, U. S. Patent No, 2,842,492, Jul. 8, 1958.

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SPE 844, J.P.T, 1964

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    • J. P. T., Sep. 1967, P1103

  • 16. Jones, M. A.: “Waterfood Mobility Control: A Case History”, J.

    • P. T., Sep. 1966, P1151

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