Articles | Volume 20, issue 1
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 20, 39–54, 2016
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 20, 39–54, 2016

Research article 15 Jan 2016

Research article | 15 Jan 2016

Accelerated gravity testing of aquitard core permeability and implications at formation and regional scale

W. A. Timms1,2, R. Crane2,3, D. J. Anderson3, S. Bouzalakos1,2, M. Whelan1,2, D. McGeeney2,3, P. F. Rahman3, and R. I. Acworth2,3 W. A. Timms et al.
  • 1School of Mining Engineering, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
  • 2UNSW Connected Waters Initiative affiliated with the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training, Sydney, Australia
  • 3Water Research Laboratory, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

Abstract. Evaluating the possibility of leakage through low-permeability geological strata is critically important for sustainable water supplies, the extraction of fuels from coal and other strata, and the confinement of waste within the earth. The current work demonstrates that relatively rapid and realistic vertical hydraulic conductivity (Kv) measurements of aquitard cores using accelerated gravity can constrain and compliment larger-scale assessments of hydraulic connectivity. Steady-state fluid velocity through a low-K porous sample is linearly related to accelerated gravity (g level) in a centrifuge permeameter (CP) unless consolidation or geochemical reactions occur. A CP module was custom designed to fit a standard 2 m diameter geotechnical centrifuge (550 g maximum) with a capacity for sample dimensions up to 100 mm diameter and 200 mm length, and a total stress of  ∼  2 MPa at the base of the core. Formation fluids were used as influent to limit any shrink–swell phenomena, which may alter the permeability. Kv results from CP testing of minimally disturbed cores from three sites within a clayey-silt formation varied from 10−10 to 10−7  m s−1 (number of samples, n = 18). Additional tests were focussed on the Cattle Lane (CL) site, where Kv within the 99 % confidence interval (n = 9) was 1.1 × 10−9 to 2.0 × 10−9 m s−1. These Kv results were very similar to an independent in situ Kv method based on pore pressure propagation though the sequence. However, there was less certainty at two other core sites due to limited and variable Kv data. Blind standard 1 g column tests underestimated Kv compared to CP and in situ Kv data, possibly due to deionised water interactions with clay, and were more time-consuming than CP tests. Our Kv results were compared with the set-up of a flow model for the region, and considered in the context of heterogeneity and preferential flow paths at site and formation scale. Reasonable assessments of leakage and solute transport through aquitards over multi-decadal timescales can be achieved by accelerated core testing together with complimentary hydrogeological monitoring, analysis, and modelling.

Short summary
Low permeability sediments and rock can leak slowly, yet can act as important barriers to flow for resource development and for waste sequestration. Relatively rapid and reliable hydraulic tests of "tight" geological materials are possible by accelerating gravity. Results from geotechnical centrifuge testing of drill core and in situ pore pressure monitoring were compared with a regional flow model, and considered in the context of inherent geological variability at site and formation scale.