Push-pull tracer tests: Their information content and use for characterizing non-Fickian, mobile-immobile behavior

Scott K. Hansen, Brian Berkowitz, Velimir V. Vesselinov, Daniel O'Malley, Satish Karra

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


Path reversibility and radial symmetry are often assumed in push-pull tracer test analysis. In reality, heterogeneous flow fields mean that both assumptions are idealizations. To understand their impact, we perform a parametric study which quantifies the scattering effects of ambient flow, local-scale dispersion, and velocity field heterogeneity on push-pull breakthrough curves and compares them to the effects of mobile-immobile mass transfer (MIMT) processes including sorption and diffusion into secondary porosity. We identify specific circumstances in which MIMT overwhelmingly determines the breakthrough curve, which may then be considered uninformative about drift and local-scale dispersion. Assuming path reversibility, we develop a continuous-time-random-walk-based interpretation framework which is flow-field-agnostic and well suited to quantifying MIMT. Adopting this perspective, we show that the radial flow assumption is often harmless: to the extent that solute paths are reversible, the breakthrough curve is uninformative about velocity field heterogeneity. Our interpretation method determines a mapping function (i.e., subordinator) from travel time in the absence of MIMT to travel time in its presence. A mathematical theory allowing this function to be directly “plugged into” an existing Laplace-domain transport model to incorporate MIMT is presented and demonstrated. Algorithms implementing the calibration are presented and applied to interpretation of data from a push-pull test performed in a heterogeneous environment. A successful four-parameter fit is obtained, of comparable fidelity to one obtained using a million-node 3-D numerical model. Finally, we demonstrate analytically and numerically how push-pull tests quantifying MIMT are sensitive to remobilization, but not immobilization, kinetics.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)9565-9585
Number of pages21
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number12
StatePublished - 1 Dec 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • CTRW
  • SWIW
  • anomalous transport
  • inverse problems
  • mass transfer
  • subordination

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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