Novel study uncovers the way coughs and sneezes stay airborne for long distances
The next time you feel a sneeze coming on, raise your elbow to cover up that multiphase turbulent buoyant cloud you're about to expel.
That's right: A novel study by MIT researchers shows that coughs and sneezes have associated gas clouds that keep their potentially infectious droplets aloft over much greater distances than previously realized.
"When you cough or sneeze, you see the droplets, or feel them if someone sneezes on you," says John Bush, a professor of applied mathematics at MIT, and co-author of a new paper on the subject. "But you don't see the cloud, the invisible gas phase. The influence of this gas cloud is to extend the range of the individual droplets, particularly the small ones."
Indeed, the study finds, the smaller droplets that emerge in a cough or sneeze may travel five to 200 times further than they would if those droplets simply moved as groups of unconnected particles ï¿½ which is what previous estimates had assumed. The tendency of these droplets to stay airborne, resuspended by gas clouds, means that ventilation systems may be more prone to transmitting potentially infectious particles than had been suspected.
With this in mind, architects and engineers may want to re-examine the design of workplaces and hospitals, or air circulation on airplanes, to reduce the chances of airborne pathogens being transmitted among people.
"You can have ventilation contamination in a much more direct way than we would have expected originally," says Lydia Bourouiba, an assistant professor in MIT's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and another co-author of the study.
The paper, "Violent expiratory events: on coughing and sneezing," was published in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics. It is co-written by Bourouiba, Bush, and Eline Dehandschoewercker, a graduate student at ESPCI ParisTech, a French technical university, who previously was a visiting summer student at MIT, supported by the MIT-France program.
Smaller drops, longer distances
The researchers used high-speed imaging of coughs and sneezes, as well as laboratory simulations and mathematical modeling, to produce a new analysis of coughs and sneezes from a fluid-mechanics perspective. Their conclusions upend some prior thinking on the subject. For instance: Researchers had previously assumed that larger mucus droplets fly farther than smaller ones, because they have more momentum, classically defined as mass times velocity.
That would be true if the trajectory of each droplet were unconnected to those around it. But close observations show this is not the case; the interactions of the droplets with the gas cloud make all the difference in their trajectories. Indeed, the cough or sneeze resembles, say, a puff emerging from a smokestack.
"If you ignored the presence of the gas cloud, your first guess would be that larger drops go farther than the smaller ones, and travel at most a couple of meters," Bush says. "But by elucidating the dynamics of the gas cloud, we have shown that there's a circulation within the cloud ï¿½ the smaller drops can be swept around and resuspended by the eddies within a cloud, and so settle more slowly. Basically, small drops can be carried a great distance by this gas cloud while the larger drops fall out. So you have a reversal in the dependence of range on size."
Specifically, the study finds that droplets 100 micrometers ï¿½ or millionths of a meter ï¿½ in diameter travel five times farther than previously estimated, while droplets 10 micrometers in diameter travel 200 times farther. Droplets less than 50 micrometers in size can frequently remain airborne long enough to reach ceiling ventilation units.
A cough or sneeze is a "multiphase turbulent buoyant cloud," as the researchers term it in the paper, because the cloud mixes with surrounding air before its payload of liquid droplets falls out, evaporates into solid residues, or both.
"The cloud entrains ambient air into it and continues to grow and mix," Bourouiba says. "But as the cloud grows, it slows down, and so is less able to suspend the droplets within it. You thus cannot model this as isolated droplets moving ballistically."
Ready for a close-up
The MIT researchers are now developing additional tools and studies to extend our knowledge of the subject. For instance, given air conditions in any setting, researchers can better estimate the reach of a given expelled pathogen.
"An important feature to characterize is the pathogen footprint," Bush says. "Where does the pathogen actually go? The answer has changed dramatically as a result of our revised physical picture."
Bourouiba's continuing research focuses on the fluid dynamics of fragmentation, or fluid breakup, which governs the formation of the pathogen-bearing droplets responsible for indoor transmission of respiratory and other infectious diseases. Her aim is to better understand the mechanisms underlying the epidemic patterns that occur in populations.
"We're trying to rationalize the droplet size distribution resulting from the fluid breakup in the respiratory tract and exit of the mouth," she says. "That requires zooming in close to see precisely how these droplets are formed and ejected."
Written by Peter Dizikes, MIT News Office
Funding for the study was provided by the National Science Foundation.
Abby Abazorius | EurekAlert!
New study: How stable is the West Antarctic Ice Sheet?
09.02.2016 | Alfred-Wegener-Institut, Helmholtz-Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung
Online shopping might not be as green as we thought
08.02.2016 | University of Delaware
Today, plants and microorganisms are heavily used for the production of medicinal products. The production of biopharmaceuticals in plants, also referred to as “Molecular Pharming”, represents a continuously growing field of plant biotechnology. Preferred host organisms include yeast and crop plants, such as maize and potato – plants with high demands. With the help of a special algal strain, the research team of Prof. Ralph Bock at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Potsdam strives to develop a more efficient and resource-saving system for the production of medicines and vaccines. They tested its practicality by synthesizing a component of a potential AIDS vaccine.
The use of plants and microorganisms to produce pharmaceuticals is nothing new. In 1982, bacteria were genetically modified to produce human insulin, a drug...
Atomic clock experts from the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) are the first research group in the world to have built an optical single-ion clock which attains an accuracy which had only been predicted theoretically so far. Their optical ytterbium clock achieved a relative systematic measurement uncertainty of 3 E-18. The results have been published in the current issue of the scientific journal "Physical Review Letters".
Atomic clock experts from the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) are the first research group in the world to have built an optical single-ion clock...
The University of Würzburg has two new space projects in the pipeline which are concerned with the observation of planets and autonomous fault correction aboard satellites. The German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy funds the projects with around 1.6 million euros.
Detecting tornadoes that sweep across Mars. Discovering meteors that fall to Earth. Investigating strange lightning that flashes from Earth's atmosphere into...
Physicists from Saarland University and the ESPCI in Paris have shown how liquids on solid surfaces can be made to slide over the surface a bit like a bobsleigh on ice. The key is to apply a coating at the boundary between the liquid and the surface that induces the liquid to slip. This results in an increase in the average flow velocity of the liquid and its throughput. This was demonstrated by studying the behaviour of droplets on surfaces with different coatings as they evolved into the equilibrium state. The results could prove useful in optimizing industrial processes, such as the extrusion of plastics.
The study has been published in the respected academic journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America).
Exceeding critical temperature limits in the Southern Ocean may cause the collapse of ice sheets and a sharp rise in sea levels
A future warming of the Southern Ocean caused by rising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere may severely disrupt the stability of the West...
12.02.2016 | Event News
09.02.2016 | Event News
02.02.2016 | Event News
12.02.2016 | Physics and Astronomy
12.02.2016 | Life Sciences
12.02.2016 | Medical Engineering