Critical Review of Coupled Flux Formulations for Clay Membranes Based on Nonequilibrium Thermodynamics

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Extensive research conducted over the past several decades has indicated that semipermeable membrane behavior (i.e., the ability of a porous medium to restrict the passage of solutes) may have a significant influence on solute migration through a wide variety of clay-rich soils, including both natural clay formations (aquitards, aquicludes) and engineered clay barriers (e.g., landfill liners and vertical cutoff walls). Restricted solute migration through clay membranes generally has been described using coupled flux formulations based on nonequilibrium (irreversible) thermodynamics. However, these formulations have differed depending on the assumptions inherent in the theoretical development, resulting in some confusion regarding the applicability of the formulations. Accordingly, a critical review of coupled flux formulations for liquid, current, and solutes through a semipermeable clay membrane under isothermal conditions is undertaken with the goals of explicitly resolving differences among the formulations and illustrating the significance of the differences from theoretical and practical perspectives. Formulations based on single-solute systems (i.e., uncharged solute), single-salt systems, and general systems containing multiple cations or anions are presented. Also, expressions relating the phenomenological coefficients in the coupled flux equations to relevant soil properties (e.g., hydraulic conductivity and effective diffusion coefficient) are summarized for each system. A major difference in the formulations is shown to exist depending on whether counter diffusion or salt diffusion is assumed. This difference between counter and salt diffusion is shown to affect the interpretation of values for the effective diffusion coefficient in a clay membrane based on previously published experimental data. Solute transport theories based on both counter and salt diffusion then are used to re-evaluate previously published column test data for the same clay membrane. The results indicate that, despite the theoretical inconsistency between the counter-diffusion assumption and the salt-diffusion conditions of the experiments, the predictive ability of solute transport theory based on the assumption of counter diffusion is not significantly different from that based on the assumption of salt diffusion, provided that the input parameters used in each theory are derived under the same assumption inherent in the theory. Nonetheless, salt-diffusion theory is fundamentally correct and, therefore, is more appropriate for problems involving salt diffusion in clay membranes. Finally, the fact that solute diffusion cannot occur in an ideal or perfect membrane is not explicitly captured in any of the theoretical expressions for total solute flux in clay membranes, but rather is generally accounted for via inclusion of an effective porosity, ne, or a restrictive tortuosity factor, tr, in the formulation of Fick's first law for diffusion. Both ne and tr have been correlated as a linear function of membrane efficiency. This linear correlation is supported theoretically by pore-scale modeling of solid-liquid interactions, but experimental support is limited. Additional data are needed to bolster the validity of the linear correlation for clay membranes.


Journal of Contaminant Hydrology





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Civil and Environmental Engineering



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