Porosity and permeability are two of the primary factors that control the movement and storage of fluids in rocks and sediments. They are intrinsic characteristics of these geologic materials. The exploitation of natural resources, such as groundwater and petroleum, is partly dependent on the properties of porosity and permeability.
Porosity is the ratio of the volume of openings (voids) to the total volume of material. Porosity represents the storage capacity of the geologic material. The primary porosity of a sediment or rock consists of the spaces between the grains that make up that material. The more tightly packed the grains are, the lower the porosity. Using a box of marbles as an example, the internal dimensions of the box would represent the volume of the sample. The space surrounding each of the spherical marbles represents the void space. The porosity of the box of marbles would be determined by dividing the total void space by the total volume of the sample and expressed as a percentage.
The primary porosity of unconsolidated sediments is determined by the shape of the grains and the range of grain sizes present. In poorly sorted sediments, those with a larger range of grain sizes, the finer grains tend to fill the spaces between the larger grains, resulting in lower porosity. Primary porosity can range from less than one percent in crystalline rocks like granite to over 55% in some soils. The porosity of some rock is increased through fractures or solution of the material itself. This is known as secondary porosity.
Permeability is a measure of the ease with which fluids will flow though a porous rock, sediment, or soil. Just as with porosity, the packing, shape, and sorting of granular materials control their permeability. Although a rock may be highly porous, if the voids are not interconnected, then fluids within the closed, isolated pores cannot move. The degree to which pores within the material are interconnected is known as effective porosity. Rocks such as pumice and shale can have high porosity, yet can be nearly impermeable due to the poorly interconnected voids. In contrast, well-sorted sandstone closely replicates the example of a box of marbles cited above. The rounded sand grains provide ample, unrestricted void spaces that are free from smaller grains and are very well linked. Consequently, sandstones of this type have both high porosity and high permeability.
The range of values for permeability in geologic materials is extremely large. The most conductive materials have permeability values that are millions of times greater than the least permeable. Permeability is often directional in nature. The characteristics of the interstices of certain materials may cause the permeability to be significantly greater in one direction. Secondary porosity features, like fractures, frequently have significant impact on the permeability of the material. In addition to the characteristics of the host material, the viscosity and pressure of the fluid also affect the rate at which the fluid will flow.
See also Aquifer; Hydrogeology
Did this raise a question for you?