An experimental study on characterization of physical properties of ultramafic rocks and controls on evolution of fracture permeability during serpentinization at hydrothermal conditions

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Virginia Tech


Serpentinization is a complex set of hydration reactions, where olivine and pyroxene are replaced by serpentine, magnetite, brucite, talc and carbonate minerals. Serpentinization reactions alter chemical, mechanical, magnetic, seismic, and hydraulic properties of the crust. To understand the complicated nature of serpentinization and the linkages between physical and chemical changes during the reactions, I performed flow-through laboratory experiments on cylindrically cored samples of ultramafic rocks.

Each core had a well-mated through-going tensile fracture, to investigate evolution of fracture permeability during serpentinization. The samples were tested in a triaxial loading machine at an effective pressure of 30 MPa, and temperature of 260°C, simulating a depth of 2 km under hydrostatic conditions. Fracture permeability decreased by one to two orders of magnitude during the 200 to 340 hour experiments. Electron microprobe and SEM data indicated the formation of needle-shaped crystals of serpentine composition along the walls of the fracture, and chemical analyses of sampled pore fluids were consistent with dissolution of ferro-magnesian minerals. The rate of transformation of olivine to serpentine in a tensile fracture is calculated using the data on evolution of fracture permeability assuming the fracture permeability could be represented by parallel plates. Assuming the dissolution and precipitation reactions occur simultaneously; the rate of transformation at the beginning of the experiments was ~ 10-8-10-9 (mol/m2s) and decreased monotonically by about an order of magnitude towards the end of the experiment. Results show that dissolution and precipitation is the main mechanism contributing to the reduction in fracture aperture. The experimental results suggest that the fracture network in long-lived hydrothermal circulation systems may be sealed rapidly as a result of mineral precipitation, and generation of new permeability resulting from a combination of tectonic and crystallization-induced stresses may be required to maintain fluid circulation.

Another set of flow through experiments were performed on intact samples of ultramafic rocks at room temperature and effective pressures of 10, 20 and 30 MPa to estimate the pressure dependency of intact permeability. Porosity and density measurements were also performed with the purpose of characterizing these properties of ultramafic rocks.

The pressure dependency of the coefficient of matrix permeability of the ultramafic rock samples fell in the range of 0.05-0.14 MPa-1. Using porosity and permeability measurements, the ratio of interconnected porosity to total porosity was estimated to be small and the permeability of the samples was dominantly controlled by microcracks. Using the density and porosity measurements, the degree of alteration of samples was estimated. Samples with high density and pressure dependent permeability had a smaller degree of alteration than those with lower density and pressure dependency.



Ultramafic Rocks, Serpentinization, Fracture Permeability, Intact Permeability, Pressure dependency, olivine transformation