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Physical and hydraulic properties of modern sinter deposits: El Tatio, Atacama


Sinters are siliceous, sedimentary deposits that form in geothermal areas. Formation occurs in two steps. Hot water circulates in the subsurface and dissolves silica from the host rock, usually rhyolites. Silica then precipitates after hot water is discharged and cools. Extensive sinter formations are linked to up-flow areas of fluids originating from high temperature (> 175 °C) deep reservoirs. Fluid geochemistry, microbial communities, and environmental conditions of deposition determine the texture of sinter and pore framework. Porosity strongly influences physical and hydraulic properties of rocks. To better understand the properties controlling the transport of fluids, and interpret geophysical observations in geothermal systems, we studied 17 samples of modern geyserite sinter deposits (< 10 ka) from the active El Tatio geothermal field in northern Chile. We measured the physical properties (hydraulic, seismic, and electrical), and internal microstructure (using μX-Ray computed tomography). We find that the pore structure, and thus hydraulic and physical properties, is controlled by the distribution of microbial matter. Based on velocity-porosity relationships, permeability-porosity scaling, and image analysis of the 3D pore structure; we find that the physical and hydraulic properties of sinter more closely resemble those of vesicular volcanic rocks and other material formed by precipitation in geothermal settings (i.e., travertine) than clastic sedimentary rocks.

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