Everyone knows what happens to water when it boils—everyone, that is, except computers. Modeling the transformation process of matter moving from one phase to another, such as from liquid to gas, has been all but impossible near the critical point. This is due to the increasingly complex way molecules behave as they approach the change from one phase to another. Researchers at the University of Rochester, however, have now created a mathematical model that will allow scientists to simulate and understand phase changes, which could have an impact on everything from decaffeinating coffee to improving fuel cell efficiency in automobiles of the future. The findings have been published in Physical Review Letters.
"This problem has baffled scientists for decades," says Yonathan Shapir, professor of physics and chemical engineering at the University of Rochester, and co-author of the paper. "This is the first time a computer program could simulate a phase transition because the computers would always bog down at whats known as the critical slowdown. We figured out a way to perform a kind of end-run around that critical point slowdown and the results allow us to calculate certain critical point properties for the first time."
"Critical slowdown" is a phenomenon that happens as matter moves from one phase to another near the critical point. As molecules in a gas, for instance, are cooled, they lose some of their motion, but are still moving around and bumping into each other. As the temperature drops to where the gas will change into a liquid, the molecules motion becomes correlated, or connected, across larger and larger distances. That correlation is a bit like deciding where to go to dinner—quick and easy with two people, but takes forever for a group of 20 to take action. The broadening correlation dramatically increases the time it takes for the gas to reach an overall equilibrium, and that directly leads to an increase in computing time required, approaching infinity and bogging down as the gas crosses the point of phase change.
Jonathan Sherwood | EurekAlert!
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