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Precipitation in Pores: A Geochemical Frontier

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Reviews in Mineralogy and Geochemistry
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The purpose of this article is to review some of the recent research in which geochemists have examined precipitation of solid phases in porous media, particularly in pores a few nanometers in diameter (nanopores). While this is a “review,” it is actually more forward- looking in that the list of things about this phenomenon that we do not know or cannot control at this time is likely longer than what we do know and can control. For example, there are three directly contradictory theories on how to predict how precipitation proceeds in a medium of varying pore size, as will be discussed below. The confusion on this subject likely stems from the complexity of the phenomenon itself: One can easily clog a porous medium by inducing a rapid, homogeneous precipitation directly from solution, or have limited precipitation occur that does not affect permeability or even porosity substantially. It is more difficult to engineer mineral precipitation in order to obtain a specific outcome, such as filling all available pore space over a targeted area for the purposes of contaminant sequestration. However, breakthrough discoveries could occur in the next five to ten years that enhance our ability to predict robustly and finely control precipitation in porous media by understanding how porosity and permeability evolve in response to system perturbations. These discoveries will likely stem (at least in part) from advances in our ability to 1) perform and interpret X-ray/neutron scattering experiments that reveal the extent of precipitation and its locales within porous media (Anovitz and Cole 2015, this volume), and 2) utilize increasingly powerful simulations to test concepts and models about the evolution of porosity and permeability as precipitation occurs (Steefel et al. 2015, this volume). A further important technique to isolate specific phenomena and understand reactivity is also microfluidics cell experiments that allow specific control of flow paths and fluid velocities (Yoon et al. 2012). An improved ability to synthesize idealized porous media will allow for tailored control of pore distributions, mineralogy and will allow more reproducible results. This in turn may allow us to isolate specific processes without the competing and obfuscatory effects that hinder generalization of observations when working with solely natural samples. It is likely that no one single experiment, or simulation technique will provide the key discoveries: to make substantive progress will require a collaborative effort to understand the interplay between fluid transport and geochemistry. Where rock fracturing and elevated pressures are of concern, an understanding and capability to model geomechanical properties are necessary (Scherer 1999).

It is critical to understand not just how the precipitation reactions themselves occur, but how a given solution composition, net flow rate and porous substrate translate to macroscopic hydrologic parameters such as the evolution porosity and permeability that change in response to geochemical reactions. Predicting these macroscopic terms is prerequisite for extrapolating from laboratory-based or in silico (i.e., computational model) systems where every pore in the reactor/cell can be resolved or sampled to reservoir-scale simulations and field studies. In these larger length-scale studies, it is no longer practical to think about individual pores but instead one must consider pore distributions in aggregate. The current state-of-the-art is to use linear relationships where the porosity and permeability are calculated using empirically fit functions (Gibson-Poole et al. 2008). To improve the status quo will require us to develop new, up-scaling theories that can accurately approximate the richness of reactivity observed at the atomic- to pore-scales, but are still useful at the reservoir scale (Reeves and Rothman, 2012). To verify and validate such models will require a strong connection between research performed at the nanometer- or micrometer-length scales and larger column- or field-scale studies.


A. G. Stack, "Precipitation in Pores:  A Geochemical Frontier." Rev. Mineral. Geochem.  201580, 165-190.