Ductile shear zones can induce hydraulically over-pressured fractures in deep hot-dry rock reservoirs: a new target for geothermal exploration?
Abstract:It is notoriously difficult to create and maintain permeability in deep hot-dry rock (HDR) geothermal reservoirs with engineering strategies. However, we predict that long-lived, slowly deforming HDR reservoirs likely contain hydraulically conductive, over-pressured fracture systems, provided that (a) the underlying lower crust and/or mantle are not entirely depleted of fluids and (b) the fracture system has not been drained into highly permeable overlying rocks. Such fracture systems could be targeted for the extraction of geothermal energy.
Our prediction hinges on the notion that polycrystalline creep through matter transfer by a liquid phase (dissolution-precipitation creep) is a widespread mechanism for extracting fluids from the lower crust and mantle. Such processes - where creep cavities form during the slow, high-temperature deformation of crystalline solids, e.g., ceramics, metals, and rocks – entail the formation of (intergranular) fluid-assisted creep fractures. They constitute micron-scale voids formed along grain boundaries due to incompatibilities arising from diffusion or dislocation creep. Field and laboratory evidence suggest that the process leading to creep fractures may generate a dynamic permeability in the ductile crust, thus extracting fluids from this domain.
We employed an elasto-visco-plastic material model that simulates creep fractures with continuum damage mechanics to model the slow contraction of high-heat-producing granites overlain by sedimentary rocks in 2D. The models suggest that deformation always leads to the initiation of a horizontal creep-damage front in the lower crust. This front propagates upwards towards the brittle-ductile transition (BDT) during protracted deformation where it collapses into highly damaged brittle-ductile shear zones. If the BDT is sufficiently shallow or finite strain sufficiently large, these shear zones trigger brittle faults emerging from their tips, which connect to the sub-horizontal damage layer just underneath the BDT. This layer may feed the brittle fault with over-pressured, hot fluids from ductile lithosphere. We discuss our models in relation to the Cooper-Basin granites of South Australia, which may constitute a natural example of this phenomenon.