Mechanics of Complex Hydraulic Fractures in the Earth's Crust

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Sim, Youngjong
Germanovich, Leonid N.
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Hydraulic fracturing is an important and abundant process in both industrial applications and natural environments. The current work is the first systematic quantitative study of the effect of interaction in and between complex hydraulic fractures at different spatial scales. A mathematical model, based on the boundary collocation method, has been developed. The model has been employed for a typical field case, a highly segmented vein. This vein is well-mapped, and therefore, represents a well constrained example. The computed apertures are compared to the measured apertures. By using the simplest constitutive model, based on an ideal elastic material, and including the effect of interaction between the segments, it was possible to obtain an excellent match at all considered scales. It was also shown that the concept of effective fracture, as currently accepted in the literature, is not always applicable and may lead to unbounded inaccuracy. Unfortunately, in most cases, very little (if any) directly measured data on fracture and material properties is available. An important example of such a weakly constrained case, involving hydraulic fracturing, is diking beneath the seafloor at mid-oceanic ridges. In this study, it is shown that the commonly accepted scenario of a dike propagating from the center of the pressurized magma chamber to the ocean floor is not consistent with conventional fracture mechanics due to the fact that the chamber has the shape of a thin lens. Even at such a large scale (i.e., a kilometer or more), the mechanical principles of elastic interaction appear to be applicable. Since diking is likely to generate a region of high permeability near its margin, in addition to heat, the ongoing hydrothermal activity becomes localized. Our modeling suggests the probable positions of the propagating dikes. Consequently, comparing the observed locations of hydrothermal sites with respect to that of the magma chamber could be useful for constraining the mechanisms of magma lens evolution.
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