A Systematic Investigation Into the Control of Roughness on the Flow Properties of 3D-Printed Fractures

Tomos Phillips*, Tom Bultreys, Kevin Bisdom, Niko Kampman, Stefanie Van Offenwert, Arjen Mascini, Veerle Cnudde, Andreas Busch

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Citations (Scopus)
49 Downloads (Pure)


Heterogeneous fracture aperture distribution, dictated by surface roughness, mechanical rock and fracture properties, and effective stress, limits the predictive capabilities of many reservoir-scale models that commonly assume smooth fracture walls. Numerous experimental studies have probed key hydromechanical responses in single fractures; however, many are constrained by difficulties associated with sample preparation and quantitative roughness characterization. Here, we systematically examine the effect of roughness on fluid flow properties by 3D printing seven self-affine fractures, each with controlled roughness distributions akin to those observed in nature. Photogrammetric microscopy was employed to validate the 3D topology of each printed fracture surface, enabling quantification using traditional roughness metrics, namely the Joint Roughness Coefficient (JRC). Core-flooding experiments performed on each fracture across eight incremental confining pressure increases (11–25 bar), shows smoother fractures (JRC < 5.5) exhibit minor permeability variation, whilst rougher fractures (JRC > 7) show as much as a 219% permeability increase. Micro-computed tomography imaging of the roughest fracture under varying effective stresses (5–13.8 bar), coupled with inspection into the degree of similarity between fracture closure behavior in 3D-printed and natural rock fractures, highlight the capabilities of 3D-printed materials to act as useful analogs to natural rocks. Comparison of experimental data to existing empirical aperture-permeability models demonstrates that fracture contact area is a better permeability predictor than roughness when the mechanical aperture is below ∼20 μm. Such findings are relevant for models incorporating the effects of heterogeneous aperture structures and applied stress to predict fracture flow in the deep subsurface.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberewrcr.25233
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number4
Early online date30 Mar 2021
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2021


  • 3D printing
  • fracture contact area
  • fracture permeability
  • fracture roughness
  • micro-computed tomography

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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