Quantifying the Anisotropy of Permeability in Stressed Rock

Lead Research Organisation: University of Aberdeen
Department Name: School of Geosciences


Fluid flow in rocks is vitally important for a wide range of natural processes and human activities, including the triggering of earthquakes, the extraction of oil, gas and water from subsurface reservoirs, and the storage of waste products such as CO2 or radioactive waste. Fluid flow in the Earth's crust takes place through connected networks of pores, cracks and fractures, and is driven by differences in fluid pressure. We measure the ability of rocks to conduct fluid as permeability, and rocks are known to exhibit strong directional variations - or anisotropy - of this key transport property. Laboratory experiments and in situ borehole tests have shown that permeability can vary by several orders of magnitude - i.e. by factors of 100 or 1000 - in different directions. Permeability is also known to be highly dependent on the stress in the solid rock matrix. Again, finely controlled laboratory tests and rather less well constrained in-situ measurements from the subsurface show this to be the case. A key problem though is that the laboratory tests conducted to date have been conducted under simplified stress conditions which do not match the actual anisotropy of in situ stress within the crust. This makes it very difficult to interpret and apply the published laboratory data to more general geological situations, such as fluid flow around seismically active fault zones or reducing risks for CO2 storage in fractured porous reservoirs, with any degree of confidence.

Our proposal is to use a new apparatus at UCL which can apply fully anisotropic (truly triaxial) stress to fluid saturated rock samples of sandstone and granite. Cubic or rectangular shaped blocks of rock will be compressed by three pairs of metal rams, symmetrically arranged at 90 degrees to each other around the sample. This will allow us to vary each of the 3 main (principal) stresses independently. Rock samples will be large enough (5 x 5 x 5 cm cubes, for example) to contain quasi-homogeneous distributions of pores and cracks. We will modify this unique apparatus to enable measurement of permeability along any of the three loading directions that compress the rock. Our proposal builds on recent award-winning research at Aberdeen, where permeability anisotropy has been measured in on oriented samples from a natural fault zone, and carefully related to the pore fabric within the rock. We aim to link the anisotropy of permeability with the anisotropy of stress and the anisotropy of the void space (= pores + cracks). We will define new empirical equations from our quantitative laboratory tests and porosity characterisations. These data and relationships will be used in state-of-the-art computer models of fault zones to explore how directional variations in fluid flow (permeability anisotropy) affect the probability and the type of slip events expected along a fault zone. This will provide a much improved understanding of the risks from earthquake-prone faults in the crust, and more generally, we will begin to understand the truly 3D nature of fluid flow in rocks.

Planned Impact

The following communities of end users could potentially benefit from the proposed research:
1. companies and agencies involved in extracting or storing fluids in the subsurface, including:
a. conventional oil & gas companies in the UK and beyond, especially those with enhanced oil recovery programmes (injecting water or CO2)
b. shale gas companies looking to use hydraulic fracturing (injecting water)
c. agencies storing CO2 in underground repositories
d. agencies storing radioactive waste underground, with concerns over the effects of short- and long-term fluid flow in the surrounding rocks

2. agencies responsible for assessing hazards and risks from earthquakes and possibly even volcanic eruptions
a. national survey bodies and safety organisations concerned with accurate forecasting of potential risks
b. policy-makers concerned with evidence-based framing of policy for public debate

These potential beneficiaries might benefit from the proposed research in the following ways:

1. companies and agencies extracting or storing fluids underground need accurate predictive models; directional variations in the rates of fluid flow - a direct consequence of permeability anisotropy - could have huge consequences for short- and long-term predictions of flow rates and fluid volumes that can be extracted and/or stored; this has implications for cost-effectiveness and safety. Better data and better predictive equations will improve economic performance and safety.

2. agencies concerned with risks from natural hazards need realistic and calibrated data for fluid flow; anisotropy of permeability may significantly change these risk assessments, and that is why our key application domain of the data we will collect is fault zone stability

In terms of timescales, we hope to make significant progress with our Project Partner Dr Frederic Cappa with the earthquake hazard modelling within 2 years of the project starting. The more applied/industrial benefits will be delivered through the PhD students to be recruited as part of the Impact plan: it may take 4-5 years from the project start date before tangible benefits are realised in this domain.

Lastly, our proposal will train two PDRAs, and potentially other 2-3 PhD students through the Impact Plan (projects designed in the Impact workshops, and submitted under the NERC CDT in Oil & Gas, Aberdeen is a core member). These professional scientists will be able to apply their quantitative skills to a range of problems in future employment, to the benefit of UK plc.


10 25 50

publication icon
Farrell N (2017) Anisotropic pore fabrics in faulted porous sandstones in Journal of Structural Geology

publication icon
Farrell N (2021) The Effect of Authigenic Clays on Fault Zone Permeability in Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth

publication icon
Panteleev I (2021) Non-linear anisotropic damage rheology model: Theory and experimental verification in European Journal of Mechanics - A/Solids

Description Design and construction of a new state-of-the-art true triaxial deformation apparatus for testing sample permeability in anisotropic stress fields. The apparatus has been built from scratch and is now calibrated and operational. Preliminary tests have sought to test data from previously published studies (Browning et al., 2017, JGR) by utilising acoustic emission monitoring during loading. A new sample assembly and jacket sealing prototype have been tested and the first pore fluid pressure tests to measure sample permeability are imminent.

Our reinterpretation of existing data has allowed an examination of the directionality of the Kaiser damage memory effect (Browning et al., 2018). We now know that crack damage accumulates by increases in differential stress regardless of mean stress, and that the stress path by which that stress state is reached is equally or more important. In true triaxial experiments, as in nature, both the stress states and stress paths can be anisotropic and may rotate over time.

These results combined have allowed us to create theoretical mechanical models to explain the dependence of s2 on increasing, and at higher stresses apparently decreasing, rock strength (Harland et al., 2018, AGU and EGU conferences).
Exploitation Route We hope the existing results and data yet to be published will be applicable in a range of fields, including geothermal energy extraction from fault damaged rocks, the safe storage of CO2 in underground reservoirs, and more generally the patterns of fluid flow around faults, including those at risk of seismic activity. The poroelastic response of seismogenic faults is dependent on the permeability (anisotropy): a drained response when k is high versus an undrained response when k is low.
Sectors Energy,Environment