The effect of surface-active solutes on water flow and contaminant transport in variably saturated porous media with capillary fringe effects
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Organic contaminants that decrease the surface tension of water (surfactants) can have an effect on unsaturated flow through porous media due to the dependence of capillary pressure on surface tension. We used an intermediate-scale 2D flow cell (2.44 x 1.53 x 0.108 m) packed with a fine silica sand to investigate surfactant-induced flow perturbations. Surfactant solution (7% 1-butanol and dye tracer) was applied at a constant rate at a point source located on the soil surface above an unconfined synthetic aquifer with ambient groundwater flow and a capillary fringe of approximately 55 cm. A glass plate allowed for visual flow and transport observations. Thirty instrumentation stations consist of time domain reflectometry probes and tensiometers measured in-situ moisture content and pressure head, respectively. As surfactant solution was applied at the point source, a transient flow perturbation associated with the advance of the surfactant solution was observed. Above the top of the capillary fringe the advance of the surfactant solution caused a visible drainage front that radiated from the point source. Upon reaching the capillary fringe, the drainage front caused a localized depression of the capillary fringe below the point source because the air-entry pressure decreased in proportion to the decrease in surface tension caused by the surfactant. Eventually, a new capillary fringe height was established. The height of the depressed capillary fringe was proportional to height of the initial capillary fringe multiplied by the relative surface tension of the surfactant solution. The horizontal transport of surfactant in the depressed capillary fringe, driven primarily by the ambient groundwater flow, caused the propagation of a wedge-shaped drying front in the downgradient direction. Comparison of dye transport during the surfactant experiment to dye transport in an experiment without surfactant indicated that because surfactant-induced drainage decreased the storage capacity of the vadose zone, the dye breakthrough time to the water table was more than twice as fast when the contaminant solution contained surfactant. The extensive propagation of the drying front and the effect of vadose zone drainage on contaminant breakthrough time suggest the importance of considering surface tension effects on unsaturated flow and transport in systems containing surface-active organic contaminants or systems, where surfactants are used for remediation of the vadose zone or unconfined aquifers.
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