If you inject a less viscous fluid, like air, into a narrow gap between two glass plates filled with a more viscous fluid, you’ll get a finger-like instability known as the Saffman-Taylor instability. If you invert the situation – injecting something viscous like water into air – the water will simply expand radially; you’ll get no fingers. But that situation doesn’t hold if there are wettable particles in the air-filled gap. Inject water into a particle-strewn air gap and you get a pattern like the one above. In this case, as the water expands, it collects particles on the meniscus between it and the air. Once the concentration of particles on the meniscus is too high for more particles to fit there, the flow starts to branch into fingers. This creates a greater surface area for interface so that more particles can get swept up as the water expands. (Image and research credit: I. Bihi et al., source)
In a recent video, Practical Engineering tackles an important and often-overlooked challenge in civil engineering: dam failure. At its simplest, a levee or dam is a wall built to hold back water, and the higher that water is, the greater the pressure at its base. That pressure can drive water to seep between the grains of soil beneath the dam. As you can see in the demo below, seeping water can take a curving path through the soil beneath a dam in order to get to the other side. When too much water makes it into the soil, it pushes grains apart and makes them slip easily; this is known as liquefaction. As the name suggests, the sediment begins behaving like a fluid, quickly leading to a complete failure of the dam as its foundation flows away. With older infrastructure and increased flooding from extreme weather events, this is a serious problem facing many communities. (Video and image credit: Practical Engineering)
Pumping air through a bed of sand can make the grains behave just like a liquid. This process is called fluidization. Air introduced at the bottom of the bed forces its way upward through the sand grains. With a high flow rate, the space between sand grains gets larger, eventually reaching a point where the aerodynamic forces on a grain of sand equal gravitational forces. At this point the sand grains are essentially suspended in the air flow and behave like a fluid themselves. Light, buoyant objects – like the red ball above – can float in the fluidized sand; heavier, denser objects will sink. Fluidization has many useful properties – like good mixing and large surface contact between solid and fluid phases – that make it popular in industrial applications. For a similar (but potentially less playful) process, check out soil liquefaction. (Image credits: R. Cheng, source; via Gizmodo; submitted by Justin)
Sandy beaches can be a great place to play with neat flows. In a recent video, Frank Howarth describes playing with beach rivers on the Oregon coast and observing a surge flow there. Under the right conditions, a current flowing over sand will build up sand ripples large enough that they form miniature dams in the flow. This traps additional water, which eventually collapses the sand ripples, releasing a surge of water. The surge tends to smooth out the sand and cause the ripple-making process to start over. It’s a fairly unusual phenomenon, but it’s one known to happen seasonally in a few specific places, like at Medano Creek in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park. There the snowmelt-fed creek surges during the late spring and early summer, releasing a fresh wave every 20 seconds or so. (Image credit: F. Howarth, source; h/t to Sebastian E.)
When we watch sands running through an hourglass, we think their flow rate is constant. In other words, the same number of grains falls through the neck at the beginning and the end. In many practical granular flows, like those through industrial hoppers (left), this is not the case. Instead, emptying those containers involves a surge near the end where the discharge rate is higher.
The surge is related to the interstitial fluid – the air, water, or other fluid in the space between the grains. On the right, you see an experiment in which brown grains submerged in green-dyed water are emptied. The dark layer is dyed water initially at the top of the grains. As the container drains, that dyed layer moves down more rapidly than the grains; this indicates that the interstitial fluid is actually being pumped by the draining of the grains. Researchers think this is an important factor affecting the final surge. (Image credits: hopper – T. Cizauskas; discharge graph – J. Koivisto and D. Durian, source; research credit: J. Koivisto and D. Durian; submitted by Marc A)
Pelargonium family produce seeds with long helical tails. These appendages, formally known as awns, are humidity-sensitive. On humid nights or after rainfall, the awn begins to straighten. With its end anchored on the ground, this unfurling spins the seed and helps it burrow into the soil. A study looking at the physics of this system found that rotating reduces the drag a burrowing seed experiences in a granular material. Normally much of the force that opposes motion into a granular material is the result of intergranular contacts creating what are known as force chains. (Many science museums have great displays that visualize force chains.) The rotating seed drags grains near its surface along with it, helping to break up the force chains and reduce resistance. (Image and research credit: W. Jung et al., source)