Gas migration in unconsolidated sediments


Our research group has developed a grain-scale computational model to investigate the coupling between multiphase fluid flow and sediment mechanics. This has allowed us to elucidate the ways in which gas migration may take place: (1) by capillary invasion in a rigid-like medium; and (2) by initiation and propagation of a fracture. The key finding is that grain size and effective confining stress are the main factors controlling the mode of gas transport in the sediment: coarse-grain sediments under high confinement favor capillary invasion, whereas fracturing dominates in fine-grain media under low confinement. We have confirmed this behavior with carefully controlled laboratory experiments, and this led us to propose a phase diagram that delineates the different invasion regimes (capillary fingering, viscous fingering, and capillary fracturing), controlled by two dimensionless numbers: a modified capillary number and a fracturing number. The first describes the competition between viscous and capillary forces, and the second captures the interplay between capillary forces and the internal frictional resistance of the medium. This mechanistic understanding has allowed us to explain observations of episodic methane venting in nature—both in lakes and in the ocean—through a model of “breathing” conduits which dilate and release gas as falling hydrostatic pressure reduces the compressive effective stress.

We are currently complementing our theoretical and laboratory studies with field work to record high-resolution methane bubbling with a lake-bottom multibeam sonar, with the objective of translating our findings into improved quantitative understanding of the spatiotemporal signature of methane venting from lake and ocean sediments.

Representative publications

  1. Preferential mode of gas invasion in sediments: grain-scale mechanistic model of coupled multiphase fluid flow and sediment mechanics
    A. K. Jain and R. Juanes, Journal of Geophysical Research, 114, B08101 (2009), doi:10.1029/2008JB006002.

  2. Crossover from fingering to fracturing in deformable disordered media.
    R. Holtzman and R. Juanes, Physical Review E, 82(4), 046305 (2010), doi:10.1103/PhysRevE.82.046305.

  3. A conduit dilation model of methane venting from lake sediments.
    B. P. Scandella, C. Varadharajan, H. F. Hemond, C. Ruppel and R. Juanes, Geophysical Research Letters, 38, L06408 (2011), doi:10.1029/2011GL046768.

  4. X-ray computed-tomography imaging of gas migration in water-saturated sediments: from capillary invasion to conduit opening.
    J.-H. Choi, Y. Seol, R. Boswell and R. Juanes, Geophysical Research Letters, 38, L17310 (2011), doi:10.1029/2011GL048513.

  5. Capillary fracturing in granular media.
    R. Holtzman, M. L. Szulczewski, and R. Juanes, Physical Review Letters, 108, 264504 (2012), doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.108.264504.


Massachusetts Institute of Technology · Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

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