Grain-scale mechanisms of particle retention in saturated and unsaturated granular materials
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The phenomenon of particle retention in granular materials has a wide range of implications. For agricultural operations, these particles can be contaminants transported through the ground that can eventually reach to aquifers, consequently contaminating the water. In oil reservoirs, these particles can be clays that get detached from the rock and migrate with the flow after a change of pressure, plugging the reservoir with the consequent reduction in permeability. These particles can also be traceable nanoparticles, introduced in the reservoir with the purpose of identifying bypassed oil. For all these reasons it is important to understand the mechanisms that contribute to the transport and retention of these particles. In this dissertation the retention of micro and nano size particles was investigated. In saturated model sediments (sphere packs), we analyzed the retention of particles by the mechanism of straining (size exclusion). The analysis focused on experiments reported in the literature in which particles smaller than the smallest pore throats were retained in the sediment. The analysis yields a mechanistic explanation of these observations, by indentifying the retention sites as gaps between pairs of sediment grains. A predictive model was developed that yields a relationship between the straining rate constant and particle size in agreement with the experimental observations. In unsaturated granular materials, the relative contributions of grain surfaces, interfacial areas and contact lines between phases to the retention of colloidal size particles were investigated. An important part of this analysis was the identification and calculation of the length of the contact lines between phases. This estimation of contact line lengths in porous media is the first of its kind. The algorithm developed to compute contact line length yielded values consistent with observations from beads pack and real rocks, which were obtained independently from analysis of high resolution images. Additionally, the predictions of interfacial areas in granular materials were consistent with an established thermodynamic theory of multiphase flow in porous media. Since there is a close relationship between interfacial areas and contact lines this supports the accuracy of the contact line length estimations. Predictions of contact line length and interfacial area in model sediments, combined with experimental values of retention of colloidal size particles in columns of glass beads suggested that it is plausible for interfacial area and contact line to contribute in the same proportion to the retention of particles. The mechanism of retention of surface treated nanoparticles in sedimentary rocks was also investigated, where it was found that retention is reversible and dominated by attractive van der Waals forces between the particles and the rock’s grain surfaces. The intricate combination of factors that affect retention makes the clear identification of the mechanism responsible for trapping a complex task. The work presented in this dissertation provides significant insight into the retention mechanisms in relevant scenarios.