Graduate Thesis Or Dissertation

Physical processes that control droplet transport in rock fracture systems

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  • Aquifer recharge is generally driven by fluids that move from the Earth’s surface to groundwater through the unsaturated zone, also known as the vadose zone. When the vadose zone is fractured, fluids, which may include contaminants, can move through the fracture network as well as the porous matrix. Such a network of fractures can provide a more rapid path, thereby reducing contact time between the fluid and the matrix. Contact time allows for exchange of solutes between the fluid and the porous matrix, thus being able to quantify contact time is important. In addition, the behavior of fluids within a fracture network has been found to be very complex; large-scale models are yet not able to predict transport paths or flux rates. Because, small-scale flow phenomena can strongly influence the large-scale behavior of fluid movement through systems of fractures, it is important that small-scale dynamics be properly understood in order to improve our predictive capabilities in these complex systems. Relevant flow dynamics includes the impact of boundary conditions, fluid modes that evolve in time and space and transitions between modes. This thesis presents three investigations aimed at understanding the physical processes governing fluid movement in unsaturated fractures, with the ultimate goal of improving predictive relationships for fluid transport in rock fracture systems. These investigations include a theoretical analysis of the wetting of a rough surface, an experimental study of the dynamics of fluid droplets (or liquid bridges) moving in a single fracture and a theoretical analysis of the movement of a fluid droplet encountering a fracture intersection. Each investigation is motivated by environmental applications. Development of an analytical equation for the wetting of a rough surface is based on a balance between capillary forces and frictional resistive forces. The resulting equation predicts movement of the liquid invasion front driven solely by the surface roughness; the relationship was found to exhibit a square root of time dependence. Rough surfaces also affect the movement of bulk fluid through the fractures. The speed of droplets moving downward between smooth and rough surfaces is seen to be significantly different. Experiments were used to develop predictive algorithms to calculate the speed of droplets in unsaturated rock fractures, which incorporate an adjusted contact angle for wet rough surfaces, and also incorporate the effect of dynamics on the evolution of the advancing contact angle. The third paper investigates the effect of intersection geometry on the larger scale distribution of fluid in a system of fractures. Fluid movement through fracture intersections depends on input flow parameters, geometry of the system, and capillary and gravitational forces. The physical mechanisms governing the process are analyzed to predict distribution of liquid into fracture branches and velocity of the output flow. This study will improve the ability to incorporate pore-scale fluid physics phenomena into large-scale models for predicting flow transport in rock fracture systems.
  • Keywords: fluid flow, rock fracture, droplet, roughness
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