The principal clays of the northern and central North Sea are illite (sometimes with interlayered smectite) and kaolin. Chlorite is only locally important. Although it has been proposed that kaolin within North Sea sandstones is detrital in origin, the majority of workers have concluded that it is authigenic, largely the product of feldspar alteration. Kaolin is found within a wide range of sedimentary settings (and within shales) apparently defying the notion that kaolin is an indicator of meteoric water deposition. Within sandstones, the earliest authigenic kaolin has a vermiform morphology, the distribution of which is controlled by the availability of detrital mica to act as a nucleus, and the composition of the post-depositional porewaters. This vermiform kaolin formed in meteoric water, the presence of which is easily accounted for below sub-aerial exposure surfaces in non-marine formations, and below unconformities over marine units. In fully marine sands, and even marine shale units, kaolin still occurs. It has therefore been suggested that even these locations have been flushed with meteoric water.
Early vermiform kaolin recrystallizes to a more blocky morphology as burial proceeds, at least in the Brent Group. Blocky kaolin has been reported as growing before, synchronously with, and after the formation of quartz overgrowths, though oxygen isotope studies support low-temperature growth, pre-quartz. Blocky kaolin may form during meteoric flushing associated with lower Cretaceous uplift and erosion, though it is found in fault blocks that are thought to have remained below sea level. Here, the kaolin may form in stagnant meteoric water, relics of the post-depositional porewater. It has also been proposed that the blocky kaolin grew in ascending basinal waters charged with carboxylic acids and CO2, though this hypothesis is not supported by stable oxygen isotope data. Some of the blocky kaolin is dickite, the stable polymorph above ∼100°C.
Fibrous illite occurs almost ubiquitously within the clastic sediments of the North Sea. An early pore-lining phase has been interpreted as both infiltrated clastic clay, and as an early diagenetic phase. Early clays may have been quite smectite-rich illites, or even discrete smectites. Later, fibrous illite is undoubtedly neoformed, and can degrade reservoir quality significantly. Both within sandstones and shales, there is an apparent increase in the K content deeper than 4 km of burial, which could be due to dilution of the early smectite-rich phase by new growth illite, or to the progressive illitization of existing I-S. Much of the ‘illite’ that has been dated by the K-Ar method may therefore actually be I-S.
The factors that control the formation of fibrous illite are only poorly known, though temperature must play a role. Illite growth has been proposed for almost the entire range of diagenetic temperatures (e.g. 15–20°C, Brent Group; 35–40°C, Oxfordian Sand, Inner Moray Firth; 50–90°C, Brae formation; 100–110°C, Brent Group; 130–140°C, Haltenbanken). It seems unlikely that there is a threshold temperature below which illite growth is impossible (or too slow to be significant), though this is a recurring hypothesis in the literature. Instead, illite growth seems to be an event, commonly triggered by oil emplacement or another change in the physiochemical conditions within the sandstone, such as an episode of overpressure release. Hence fibrous illite can grow at any temperature encountered during diagenesis.
Although there is an extensive dataset of K-Ar ages of authigenic illites from the Jurassic of the North Sea, there is no consensus as to whether the data are meaningful, or whether the purified illite samples prepared for analysis are so contaminated with detrital phases as to render the age data meaningless. At present it is unclear about how to resolve this problem, though there is some indication that chemical micro-analysis could help. It is a common belief that illite ages record the timing of oil charge, and so can be used to calibrate basin models.
Grain-coating Fe-rich chlorite cements can preserve exceptional porosity during burial. They are found in marginal marine sandstones, formed during diagenesis from precursor Fe-rich clays such as berthierine or verdine.