Evolution of strength and physical properties of ultramafic and carbonate rocks under hydrothermal conditions
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Interaction of rocks with fluids can significantly change mineral assemblage and structure. This so-called hydrothermal alteration is ubiquitous in the Earth’s crust. Though the behavior of hydrothermally altered rocks can have planet-scale consequences, such as facilitating oceanic spreading along slow ridge segments and recycling volatiles into the mantle at subduction zones, the mechanisms involved in the hydrothermal alteration are often microscopic.
Fluid-rock interactions take place where the fluid and rock meet. Fluid distribution, flux rate and reactive surface area control the efficiency and extent of hydrothermal alteration. Fluid-rock interactions, such as dissolution, precipitation and fluid mediated fracture and frictional sliding lead to changes in porosity and pore structure that feed back into the hydraulic and mechanical behavior of the bulk rock. Examining the nature of this highly coupled system involves coordinating observations of the mineralogy and structure of naturally altered rocks and laboratory investigation of the fine scale mechanisms of transformation under controlled conditions.
In this study, I focus on fluid-rock interactions involving two common lithologies, carbonates and ultramafics, in order to elucidate the coupling between mechanical, hydraulic and chemical processes in these rocks. I perform constant strain-rate triaxial deformation and constant-stress creep tests on several suites of samples while monitoring the evolution of sample strain, permeability and physical properties. Subsequent microstructures are analyzed using optical and scanning electron microscopy.
This work yields laboratory-based constraints on the extent and mechanisms of water weakening in carbonates and carbonation reactions in ultramafic rocks. I find that inundation with pore fluid thereby reducing permeability. This effect is sensitive to pore fluid saturation with respect to calcium carbonate. Fluid inundation weakens dunites as well. The addition of carbon dioxide to pore fluid enhances compaction and partial recovery of strength compared to pure water samples. Enhanced compaction in CO2-rich fluid samples is not accompanied by enhanced permeability reduction. Analysis of sample microstructures indicates that precipitation of carbonates along fracture surfaces is responsible for the partial restrengthening and channelized dissolution of olivine is responsible for permeability maintenance.