Direct visualization of colloid transport over natural heterogeneous and artificial smooth rock surfaces

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Colloid transport in fractured rock formations is an important process impacting the fate of pollutants in the subsurface. Despite intensive and outstanding research on their transport phenomena, the impact of small-scale surface heterogeneity on colloid behavior at the fracture scale remains difficult to assess. In particular, there is relatively little direct experimental evidence on the impact of natural fracture surface heterogeneity on colloid transport. To investigate this, we developed an experimental setup allowing the direct visualization of fluorescent colloid transport in a flow cell containing a natural chalk rock sample while simultaneously monitoring effluent colloid concentrations. We used samples containing both a natural fracture surface and an artificially made smooth surface from the same chalk core. We characterized the roughness and chemical composition of both surface types and numerically calculated each surface's velocity field. From the experiments, we obtained direct images of colloid transport over the surfaces, from which we calculated their dispersion coefficients and quantified the residual deposition of colloids on the rock surface. We also measured the colloid breakthrough curves by collecting eluent samples from the flow cell outlet. The natural fracture surface exhibited larger physical and chemical heterogeneity than the smooth, artificially generated surface. The aperture variability across the natural surface led to preferential flow and colloid transport which was qualitatively apparent in the fluorescent images. The colloid transport patterns matched the calculated velocity fields well, directly linking the surface topography and aperture variation to colloid transport. Compared to the artificially made surface, the natural surface also showed higher dispersion coefficients, which corresponded to the colloids' earlier breakthrough from the flow cell. While we found differences between the elemental composition of the natural and artificially smooth surfaces, we could not observe their impact on the colloids' surface attachment and retention. The main novelty in this work is the coupling of direct colloid transport imaging, breakthrough curve measurements, and colloid surface deposition analyses, in a flow cell containing a natural carbonate rock sample. Our experimental setup can be used to further investigate the link between surface heterogeneity, both chemical and physical, and colloid transport and deposition in natural rock fractures.

Original languageEnglish
Article number104067
JournalJournal of Contaminant Hydrology
StatePublished - 1 Dec 2022


  • Colloid transport
  • Dispersion
  • Fluorescence images
  • Fractured rock
  • Heterogeneity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology
  • Environmental Chemistry


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