Understanding Porosity and Density

Rock properties

Wisconsin has a wide and varied geology, and the physical properties of Wisconsin’s aquifers and aquitards reflect that variation. The Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey has tested the porosity and density of core samples collected from drill holes around the state, and we will soon be releasing an online database of this information accompanied by high-resolution images of the core.

Porosity is an important parameter in groundwater studies where it is used to estimate storage and travel times in aquifers and aquitards. Density is commonly used in gravity surveys to help determine the thicknesses and variation of different rocks. It also provides some general information about mineralogy of the rock grains. We’ve provided detailed explanations for both porosity and density below.

What is porosity?

Porosity is the percentage of void space in a rock. It is defined as the ratio of the volume of the voids or pore space divided by the total volume. It is written as either a decimal fraction between 0 and 1 or as a percentage. For most rocks, porosity varies from less than 1% to 40%.

Porosity equation where "n" equals pore space volume divided by total volume
Equation where n = porosity

The porosity of a rock depends on many factors, including the rock type and how the grains of a rock are arranged. For example, crystalline rock such as granite has a very low porosity (<1%) since the only pore spaces are the tiny, long, thin cracks between the individual mineral grains. Sandstones, typically, have much higher porosities (10–35%) because the individual sand or mineral grains don’t fit together closely, allowing larger pore spaces.

Porosity measurements of Wisconsin rocks

The porosities of the rocks measured vary from 2% to more than 30%. Much of this variation is due to lithology (rock type). Our forthcoming database will list the porosities of the tested samples, and Figure 1 shows the range and distribution of porosities by lithology. The dolomites have the lowest porosities (2–6%), the shales have the widest range of porosities (8–29%, although most are less than 15%), and the sandstones have the highest porosity (11–32%).

Visualizing pore space

Pores are shown in blue in these images.

Diagram showing relatively large pore spaces between mineral grains of sandstone
Diagram showing very small pore spaces between mineral grains of crystalline rock
Range of porosities for dolomite, shale, and sandstone.
Figure 1. Distribution of porosities for dolomite, shale, and sandstone.

What is density?

Density is defined as the mass per volume. In rocks, it is a function of the densities of the individual grains, the porosity, and the fluid filling the pores. There are three types of density in rocks: dry density, wet density, and grain density.

Density measurements of Wisconsin rocks

Our forthcoming database will list the dry, wet, and grain densities of the samples, and the figures below show the distributions for all three density types by lithology. Additional wet densities for Wisconsin rocks can be found in “Density and Magnetic Susceptibility of Wisconsin Rock,” by S.I. Dutch, R.C. Boyle, S.K. Jones-Hoffbeck, and S.M. Vandenbush (Geoscience Wisconsin, Vol. 15, p. 53–70).

Dry density

Dry density is measured on rocks without any water or fluid in their pores.Dry density equation where "ρ" equals the mass of the solid material divided by the total volume.
See Figure 2 for dry density distribution of dolomite, shale, and sandstone.


Dry density distribution ranges for dolomite (2.6 to 2.8), shale (2.3 to 2.5), and sandstone (1.9 to 2.4).
Figure 2. Distribution of dry density for dolomite, shale, and sandstone.

Wet density

Wet density is measured on fully saturated cores.
Wet density equation where "ρ" equals the sum of the solid mass and the pore fluid mass divided by the total volume.
Figure 3 shows wet density distribution for dolomite, shale, and sandstone.

Wet density ranges for dolomite (2.75 to 2.8), shale (2.4 to 2.65), and sandstone (2.15 to 2.55)
Figure 3. Distribution of wet density for dolomite, shale, and sandstone.

Grain density

Grain density describes the density of solid or mineral grains of the rock.

Grain density equation where "ρ" equals the mass of the solid material divided by the volume of the solid material.

See Figure 4 for grain density distribution of dolomite, shale, and sandstone.

Grain density measurements for dolomite, shale, and sandstone.
Figure 4. Distribution of grain density for dolomite, shale, and sandstone.

Grain density can give an indication of the mineralogy of the rock:

  • Dolomite, ρ = 2.8–3.1 g/cm3
  • Shales, ρ = 2.65–2.8 g/cm3
    Shales are composed of several minerals that have different densities in different relative amounts. The minerals may include clays such as illite (ρ = 2.6–2.9 g/cm3) and kaolinite (ρ = 2.6 g/cm3) mixed, for example, with dolomite (ρ = 2.8–3.1 g/cm3) and calcite (ρ = 2.71 g/cm3).
  • Sandstones, ρ = 2.65–2.80 g/cm3
    Nearly half of the sandstones have grain densities close to 2.65 g/cm3, the density of quartz, suggesting that those sandstones are composed of quartz grains and cement. The remaining sandstones have slightly larger grain densities, most likely due to mixing of quartz with more dense minerals like calcite (ρ = 2.71 g/cm3) or dolomite (ρ = 2.8–3.1 g/cm3).

Measurement techniques

Measuring porosity

The porosities were determined by measurements of the total volume and pore space volume of the samples. We prepared right cylindrical cores using a core drill press, a rock saw, and a surface grinder.

Measuring sample volume: Calculated by measuring the length and diameter of the cylinders using a caliper. Most samples were a nominal 2-inch diameter and 1 to 3 inches long.

Drying the samples: Samples were oven-dried at 70°C (158°F) for at least 24 hours before testing.

Measuring pore space volume: Pore space volume was determined using a helium pycnometer. The helium pycnometer makes use of Boyle’s Law (P1V1=P2V2) and helium gas, which quickly penetrates small pores and is nonreactive, to determine the solid portion of a sample. The core is placed in a sample chamber of known volume. A reference chamber, also of known volume, is pressurized. The two chambers are then connected, allowing the helium gas to flow from the reference chamber to the sample chamber. The ratio of the initial and final pressures is used to determine the volume of the sample solid. The pore volume is the difference between the total volume and the solid volume as determined by the helium pycnometer. This technique can only be used to measure pores that are interconnected. Helium and water do not penetrate into isolated pores, so these pores are not included in the porosity measurement.

Measuring density

Dry densities were determined by weighing the samples after drying and dividing the mass by the total sample volume.

Wet densities were then calculated by assuming the porosity of the sample was filled with water, adding that mass to the dry measured mass and dividing the sum by the total sample volume.

Grain density was calculated by subtracting the pore space volume from the total sample volume and then dividing the difference by the dry mass.