Transport properties and melt distribution of partially molten mantle rocks: insights from micro-computed tomography and virtual rock physics simulations

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Mid-ocean ridges are a fundamental component of plate tectonics on Earth. They are the longest mountain ranges; combined, they stretch over 70,000 km of the Earth’s surface. They are significant sources of volcanism, producing more than 20 km3 of new oceanic crust each year. The volcanism observed at the ridge axis is linked to processes that transport and focus melt in the underlying upper mantle.

Typically, upper mantle melt distribution is inferred either through inversion of geophysical data, such as electromagnetic signals, or through geodynamic modeling. Both approaches require robust constitutive relationship between on electrical conductivity, permeability, and porosity. Unfortunately, direct measurements of transport properties of partially molten rock are technically challenging due to the extreme conditions required for melting. This work aims to quantify permeability-porosity and electrical conductivity-porosity relationships of partially molten monomineralic and polymineralic aggregates by simulating fluid flow and direct current within experimentally obtained, high-resolution, three-dimensional (3-D) microstructures of partially molten rocks.

In this study, I synthesized rocks containing various proportions of olivine, orthopyroxene (opx), and basaltic melt, common components of the upper mantle. I imaged their 3-D microstructure using high-resolution, synchrotron-based X-ray micro-computed tomography. The resulting 3-D geometries constitute virtual rock samples on which pore morphology, permeability, and electrical conductivity were numerically quantified.

This work yields microstructure-based electrical conductivity-porosity and permeability-porosity power laws for olivine-melt and olivine-opx-melt aggregates containing melt fractions of 0.02 to 0.20. By directly comparing the velocity and electrical fields, which are outputs of the fluid flow and direct current simulations, respectively, this study provides strong evidence that fluid and electricity travel through distinctly different pathways within the same rock, due to the stronger dependence of fluid flux on hydraulic radius. This study also provides the first quantitative evidence of lithological melt partitioning, where melt fractions spatially associated with olivine are systematically higher than those with orthopyroxene due to the relatively low surface energy density of olivine-melt interfaces with respect to opx-melt interfaces. The results of this study place important, novel constraints on 3-D melt distribution and transport properties of the partially molten mantle regions beneath mid-ocean ridges.