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To better understand the formation and evolution of hierarchical crack networks in shales, observations of microscopic damage, and crack growth were conducted using an in situ tensile apparatus inside a scanning electron microscope. An arched specimen with an artificial notch incised into the curved edge was shown to afford effective observation of the damage and crack growth process that occurs during the brittle fracturing of shale. Because this arched specimen design can induce a squeezing effect, reducing the tensile stress concentration at the crack tip, and preventing the brittle shale from unstable fracturing to some extent. Both induced and natural pores and cracks were observed at different scales around the main crack path or on fractured surfaces. Observations indicate that the crack initiation zone develops around the crack tip where tensile stresses are concentrated and micro/nanoscale cracks nucleate. Crack advancement generally occurs by the continuous generation and coalescence of damage zones having intermittent en echelon microscopic cracks located ahead of the crack tips. Mineral anisotropy and pressure build-up around crack tips causes crack kinking, deflection, and branching. Crack growth is often accompanied by the cessation or closure of former branch cracks due to elastic recovery and induced compressive stress. The branching and interactions of cracks form a three-dimensional hierarchical network that includes induced branch cracks having similar paths, as well as natural structures such as nanopores, bedding planes, and microscopic cracks.
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