This paper studies the mechanisms of dispersion in the laminar flow through the pore space of a three-dimensional porous medium. We focus on preasymptotic transport prior to the asymptotic hydrodynamic dispersion regime, in which solute motion may be described by the average flow velocity and a hydrodynamic dispersion coefficient. High-performance numerical flow and transport simulations of solute breakthrough at the outlet of a sand-like porous medium evidence marked deviations from the hydrodynamic dispersion paradigm and identify two distinct regimes. The first regime is characterised by a broad distribution of advective residence times in single pores. The second regime is characterised by diffusive mass transfer into low-velocity regions in the wake of solid grains. These mechanisms are quantified systematically in the framework of a time-domain random walk for the motion of marked elements (particles) of the transported material quantity. Particle transitions occur over the length scale imprinted in the pore structure at random times given by heterogeneous advection and diffusion. Under globally advection-dominated conditions, i.e., Péclet numbers larger than 1, particles sample the intrapore velocities by diffusion and the interpore velocities through advection. Thus, for a single transition, particle velocities are approximated by the mean pore velocity. In order to quantify this advection mechanism, we develop a model for the statistics of the Eulerian velocity magnitude based on Poiseuille’s law for flow through a single pore and for the distribution of mean pore velocities, both of which are linked to the distribution of pore diameters. Diffusion across streamlines through immobile zones in the wake of solid grains gives rise to exponentially distributed residence times that decay on the diffusion time over the pore length. The trapping rate is determined by the inverse diffusion time. This trapping mechanism is represented by a compound Poisson process conditioned on the advective residence time in the proposed time-domain random walk approach. The model is parameterised with the characteristics of the porous medium under consideration and captures both preasymptotic regimes. Macroscale transport is described by an integro-differential equation for solute concentration, whose memory kernels are given in terms of the distribution of mean pore velocities and trapping times. This approach quantifies the physical non-equilibrium caused by a broad distribution of mass transfer time scales, both advective and diffusive, on the representative elementary volume (REV). Thus, while the REV indicates the scale at which medium properties like porosity can be uniquely defined, this does not imply that transport can be characterised by hydrodynamic dispersion.
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