The structure and rheology of crystal mushes

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Earth Sciences


As molten rock (magma) cools, it crystallizes and a 'crystal mush' forms on the margins of the magma body. The mush contains a mixture of crystals and volcanic liquid. Continued cooling steadily converts the remaining liquid to crystals, and the mush layer grows until the entire body is solid. The way this mush layer responds to stress (its strength, or 'rheology') controls volcanic processes on all scales, from the evolution of large magma chambers under super-volcanoes, to the eruption of magma at mid-ocean ridges, the emplacement of lava flows, and the dynamics and explosivity of hazardous volcanic eruptions. An understanding of mush rheology is therefore vital if we are to understand many volcanic processes. Knowing how mixtures of liquid and particles respond to external stresses is also important to a wide range of problems, including making ice-cream, pouring concrete and understanding the behaviour of mud-flows.

Much progress has been made in understanding the rheology of magmas with few suspended crystals (>50% liquid) and of rocks containing very little melt (<5% liquid). However, relatively little has been done to investigate the rheology of mushes with approximately 10-50% liquid, and it is difficult to scale up or down from previous studies because the rheology changes strongly. This intermediate case is important because many volcanic processes involve rocks with these intermediate liquid contents. For example, we don't know how important crystal mush compaction is in controlling basalt magma evolution, because of a lack of suitable data on rheology. We propose to address this gap by investigating the bulk rheology of crystal mushes with intermediate liquid contents, by combining experimental results with observations on the structure of natural crystal mushes.

The rheology of a mush depends on its crystal-scale structure. For example, the size and shape of the particles has an effect on how rigid and strong the mush is. We will therefore focus on quantifying the mush structure, which will also help us to link together natural and experimental results. Firstly we will describe and quantify the microstructure of crystal mushes that we can be sure haven't been deformed, using natural examples of gabbro. Once we know the structure of a typical gabbro mush, we will design simple experiments using low-temperature analogue materials that mimic the gabbro mush. These experiments will show us how the mush structure changes when it is deformed and how various parameters (e.g. grain size, shape and the amount of liquid) affect the mush strength and the way it deforms. We will finally examine natural rocks that have been deformed, in order to calibrate our results and determine the importance of processes such as compaction. In this way we will build a quantitative understanding of rheology during cooling and crystallisation of magma. The results will have broad applicability for other areas of Earth science, and will also be relevant to a range of problems in chemical engineering, food processing and metallurgy.

Planned Impact

We have identified a number of non-academic end-users who may benefit from the proposed research:

1. Our proposed research and methodologies have potential for incorporation into mining exploration methods. An improved understanding of the processes operating during the late stages of magma solidification, when evolved fluid migration can lead to ore deposition, will be helpful to companies involved in exploration for deposits of base and precious metals. Government agencies (including MineralsUK, the Centre for Sustainable Mineral Development at the British Geological Survey) and overseas research organisations (e.g. GEUS, Denmark) may benefit for the same reasons. We will promote these results at fora attended by industry representatives (such as the MDSG, Mineral Deposits Studies Group).

2. Many industrial applications rely on an understanding of the way crystal-rich slurries behave. One important example of this is the making of frozen food products such as ice-cream. Our discussions with the research team at Unilever show that they, and other companies working in this area, will benefit from the general physical constraints our research will place on mush rheology.

3. Our results may have direct relevance to understanding certain features of silicic volcanic rocks. Wider, less direct benefits are therefore possible for government agencies, volcano observatories and the hazard and risk analysis sector, both within and outside the UK, in terms of potential future integration of geophysical monitoring with petrology.

4. In the UK public sector, we anticipate general interest from local museums, science clubs and science festivals. Museums may be interested in the broad background behind our work, in our results, and in our field and experimental methods.

5. UK School groups (including both teaching staff and pupils) would benefit broadly from exposure to wide-ranging materials relating to earth science, living in the Arctic, the rock cycle and volcanic activity. Our proposed work is of general relevance in various every-day materials, including foods and paints. We also anticipate interest from schools and the general public for these reasons.

6. The post-doctoral researcher employed on the project will benefit from training in a range of techniques, from teaching, presentation and communication skills, to experimental and analytical methods, quantitative skills, and field skills. The PDRA will be well-suited to a career within any profession requiring a numerate, analytical employee with good communication skills. We also anticipate that the project will lead to several final-year undergraduate or PhD studentship projects during the course of the three years; these students will also benefit from training and exposure to an active research environment including external collaboration.


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Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
NE/J020877/1 01/01/2013 30/09/2013 £11,042
NE/J020877/2 Transfer NE/J020877/1 01/10/2013 31/03/2017 £9,968
Description 1. The behaviour of the partially crystalline syenite mush at the Klokken intrusion, southwest Greenland, varies systematically as a function of stratigraphic height (a proxy for crystallisation rate and extent, and grainsize). In the upper parts of the intrusion, the mush behaves in a brittle manner, with residual melts running into cracks. In the lowermost parts of the intrusion, the mush behaves plastically, with percolation of residual melts through the crystal network. This extends to hybridisation and disaggregation in the lowermost reaches (most slowly cooled parts) of the intrusion. This systematic behaviour is important because it demonstrates a fundamental control of the mush microstructure and crystallisation environment on its macroscopic behaviour. The Klokken intrusion is unusual in that its incremental emplacement (with repeated sheets of fine-grained, 'granular' syenite) has resulted in trapping of the percolating melt. Thus the infiltrated granular syenite sheets now preserve evidence for what is probably a widespread phenomenon in solidifying intrusion, but that is otherwise difficult to identify. 2. We have defined the spatial distribution of grains within a range of natural rocks representing accumulated crystals. We have also run numerical simulations of settling of polydisperse spheres with known crystal size distributions and settling rates. These numerical simulations allow us to make quantitative links between the statistical signatures of the packings and their mode of accumulation. Three distinct environments include dilute settling, dense (hindered) settling, and in situ growth and synneusis. Our quantitative work also allows us to evaluate the problems of 2D statistical measurements of 3D grain distributions.
Exploitation Route The quantitative textural work can be used to understand the benefits and limitations of textural analysis. It will facilitate the quantification of 3D tomography datasets, and linkage of 3D tomographic datasets with 2D microgeochemical datasets. This understanding is essential for industries such as mining, where tomography and/or bulk rock geochemistry is frequently used to identify chemically important (metal-rich) grains that must be related to the textures observed in a 2D slice (thin section). Our work on infiltration is relevant to understanding how large volume of highly evolved melts can accumulate and ultimately form some of the world's largest mineral deposits. This aspect of our work may therefore be of interest to the minerals industry.
Sectors Energy,Environment