Experimental exploration of fluid-driven cracks in brittle hydrogels
Hydraulic fracturing is a procedure by which a fracture is initiated and propagates due to pressure (hydraulic loading) applied by a fluid introduced inside the fracture. In this study we focus on a crack driven by an incompressible Newtonian fluid, injected at a constant rate into an elastic matrix. The injected fluid creates a radial fracture that propagates along a plane. We investigate this type of fracture both theoretically and experimentally. Our experimental apparatus uses a brittle and transparent polyacrylamide hydrogel matrix. Using this medium, we examine the rate of radial crack growth, fracture aperture, shape of the crack tip and internal fluid flow field. Our range of experimental parameters allows us to exhibit two distinct fracturing regimes, and the transition between these, in which the rate of radial crack propagation is dominated by either viscous flow within the fracture or the material toughness. Measurements of the profiles near the crack tip provide additional evidence of the viscosity-dominated and toughness-dominated regimes, and allow us to observe the transition from the viscous to the toughness regime as the crack propagates. Particle image velocimetry measurements show that the flow in the crack is radial, as expected in the viscous regime and in the early stages of the toughness regime. However, at later times in the toughness regime circulation cells are observed in the flow within the crack that destroy the radial symmetry of the flow field.