What is brittleness?

Brittleness is an important rock characteristic, but impossible to define formally because there are so many different ways of looking at it. For this reason, Tiryaki (2006) suggests we call it a rock behaviour, not a rock property.

Indeed, we're not really interested in brittleness, per se, because it's not very practical information on its own. Mining engineers are concerned with a property called cuttability — and we can think of this as conceptually analogous to the property that interests lots of geologsts, geophysicists, and engineers in petroleum, geothermal, and hydrology: frackability. In materials science, the inverse property — the ability of a rock to resist fracture — is called fracture toughness. 

What is brittleness not?

  • It's not the same as frackability, or other things you might be interested in.
  • It's not a simple rock property like, say, density or velocity. Those properties are condition-dependent too, but we agree on how to measure them.
  • It's not proportional to any elastic moduli, or a linear combination of Young's modulus and Poisson's ratio, despite what you might have heard.

So what is it then?

It depends a bit what you care about. How the rock deforms under stress? How much energy it takes to break it? What happens when it breaks? Hucka and Das (1974) rounded up lots of ways of looking at it. Here are a few:

  • Brittle rocks undergo little to no permanent deformation before failure and, depending on the test conditions, may occur suddenly and catastrophically.
  • Brittle rocks undergo little or no ductile deformation past the yield point (or elastic limit) of the rock. Note that some materials, including many rocks, have no well-defined yield point because they have non-linear elasticity.
  • Brittle rocks absorb relatively little energy before fracturing. The energy absorbed is equal to the area under the stress-strain curve (see figure).
  • Brittle rocks have a strong tendency to fracture under stress.
  • Brittle rocks break with a high ratio of fine to coarse fragments.

All of this is only made more complicated by the fact that there are lots of kinds of stress: compression, tension, shear, torsion, bending, and impact... and all of these can operate in multiple dimensions, and on multiple time scales. Suddenly a uniaxial rig doesn't quite seem like enough kit.

It will take a few posts to really get at brittleness and frackability. In future posts we'll look at relevant rock properties and how to measure them, the difference between static and dynamic measurements, and the multitude of brittleness indices. Eventually, we'll get on to what all this means for seismic waves, and ask whether frackability is something we can reasonably estimate from seismic data.

Meanwhile, if you have observations or questions to share, hit us in the comments. 

References and further reading
Hucka V, B Das (1974). Brittleness determination of rocks by different methods. Int J Rock Mech Min Sci Geomech Abstr 10 (11), 389–92. DOI:10.1016/0148-9062(74)91109-7

Tiryaki (2006). Evaluation of the indirect measures of rock brittleness and fracture toughness in rock cutting. The Journal of The South African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy 106, June 2006. Available online.