Scientists call these rivulets "gravity fingers," and the explanation for their formation has to do with the surface tension where the water—or any liquid—meets the soil (or other medium). Knowing how to account for this phenomenon mathematically will have wide-ranging impact on science problems and engineering applications, including the recovery of oil from reservoirs and the sequestration of carbon underground.
The solution reported in the Dec. 12 issue of Physical Review Letters involves borrowing a mathematical phrase, if you will, from the mathematical description of a similar problem, a solution both simple and elegant that had escaped the notice of many researchers in earlier attempts to describe the phenomenon.
Co-authors Luis Cueto-Felgueroso and Ruben Juanes of the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering discovered the solution while studying the larger question of how water displaces oil in underground reservoirs. (Petroleum engineers commonly flush oil reservoirs with water to enhance oil recovery.)
"Our paper addresses a long-standing issue in soil physics," said Cueto-Felgueroso. "Lab experiments of water infiltration into homogeneous, dry soil, repeatedly show the presence of preferential flow in the form of fingers. Yet, after several decades, the scientific community has been unable to capture this phenomenon using mathematical models."
"This was the type of problem that required someone from a different research discipline to take a look at it and come up with the solution," said Juanes, the ARCO Assistant Professor in Energy Studies. "Luis applied his expertise to a fluid mechanics problem in another medium—porous media flows—and quickly figured out the solution."
Cueto-Felgueroso, a post-doctoral associate who has previously worked primarily on airflow fluid mechanics problems, had a Eureka! moment when he realized that gravity fingers in soil (or clay or sand) look very similar to water flowing down a window pane, a fairly well-understood phenomenon. He and Juanes then pulled the mathematical explanation (think of it as a phrase of words or music) from the equation describing water on a window, and included that mathematical phrase in the equation describing liquid moving downward through soil.
After rigorous comparison of data produced by the new mathematical model with observed phenomena, the two realized they'd found the solution, a solution described by one scientist reviewing the paper in Physical Review Letters as "simple and elegant" and a "major breakthrough" in the field.
The Cueto-Felgueroso and Juanes solution also describes one aspect of the water-flowing-down-a-windowpane phenomenon that previously was not understood by scientists, who actually refer to this as "the flow of thin films": why water builds up at the tips of the fingers. Again, the answer has to with the surface tension. Before the water can flow down the film, it must build up enough energy to overcome the tension holding it in place.
So what was missing from earlier models of water moving downward through soil that made it appear to move as a steady, horizontal front, rather than in finger-like paths—even when the soil was homogenous in particle size and shape?
The missing mathematical phrase describes the surface tension of the entire finger of water, which may be several centimeters in width, as opposed to the tension existing at the micron-scale of pores between soil particles.
And that phrase will sound like music to the ears of physicists and engineers.
Denise Brehm | EurekAlert!
Four elements make 2-D optical platform
26.09.2017 | Rice University
The material that obscures supermassive black holes
26.09.2017 | Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC)
Controlling electronic current is essential to modern electronics, as data and signals are transferred by streams of electrons which are controlled at high speed. Demands on transmission speeds are also increasing as technology develops. Scientists from the Chair of Laser Physics and the Chair of Applied Physics at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) have succeeded in switching on a current with a desired direction in graphene using a single laser pulse within a femtosecond ¬¬ – a femtosecond corresponds to the millionth part of a billionth of a second. This is more than a thousand times faster compared to the most efficient transistors today.
Graphene is up to the job
At the productronica trade fair in Munich this November, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT will be presenting Laser-Based Tape-Automated Bonding, LaserTAB for short. The experts from Aachen will be demonstrating how new battery cells and power electronics can be micro-welded more efficiently and precisely than ever before thanks to new optics and robot support.
Fraunhofer ILT from Aachen relies on a clever combination of robotics and a laser scanner with new optics as well as process monitoring, which it has developed...
Plants and algae use the enzyme Rubisco to fix carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere and converting it into biomass. Algae have figured out a way to increase the efficiency of carbon fixation. They gather most of their Rubisco into a ball-shaped microcompartment called the pyrenoid, which they flood with a high local concentration of carbon dioxide. A team of scientists at Princeton University, the Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford University and the Max Plank Institute of Biochemistry have unravelled the mysteries of how the pyrenoid is assembled. These insights can help to engineer crops that remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while producing more food.
A warming planet
Our brains house extremely complex neuronal circuits, whose detailed structures are still largely unknown. This is especially true for the so-called cerebral cortex of mammals, where among other things vision, thoughts or spatial orientation are being computed. Here the rules by which nerve cells are connected to each other are only partly understood. A team of scientists around Moritz Helmstaedter at the Frankfiurt Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and Helene Schmidt (Humboldt University in Berlin) have now discovered a surprisingly precise nerve cell connectivity pattern in the part of the cerebral cortex that is responsible for orienting the individual animal or human in space.
The researchers report online in Nature (Schmidt et al., 2017. Axonal synapse sorting in medial entorhinal cortex, DOI: 10.1038/nature24005) that synapses in...
Whispering gallery mode (WGM) resonators are used to make tiny micro-lasers, sensors, switches, routers and other devices. These tiny structures rely on a...
19.09.2017 | Event News
12.09.2017 | Event News
06.09.2017 | Event News
26.09.2017 | Life Sciences
26.09.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
26.09.2017 | Information Technology