Shaken not Stirred

DOE scientists discover forceful fluid with far-reaching applications.

Bachelor kitchens are rarely known for their cleanliness. One reason is that bachelors can make a complete meal of condiments coupled with a Black and Tan. Another is that when faced with a sudden spill, bachelors become instant innovators, grabbing anything that comes to hand whether paper towels, dirty socks or even cornstarch.

In a sense, that's what researchers at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) recently came up with, using funds from its Laboratory Directed Research and Development Program. Inspired by last year's awful Gulf oil spill, and specifically, the failure of the top-kill method, they looked for fluids that would find a better way.

As may be remembered, top-kill tried to staunch the spill using a sword-wielding Uma Thruman. Oops. That's the (still-untried) Kill Bill method. Actually, top-kill attempted to plug the gusher by forcing heavy mud down the hole. However, the upwards rushing oil and resulting turbulence between the two liquids (technically called a Kelvin-Helmholtz instability) broke the mud up well before it could form a seal.

Anyone who has tried to keep a group together in a busy subway station can appreciate the difficulties caused by Kelvin-Helmholtz instabilities. The crowd pushing past in the opposite direction breaks up the group, inevitably and irrevocably separating them from the one person who actually knows where they're going.

A fluid that compresses under stress – similar to a group forming an informal phalanx when going upstream – stands a much better chance of making it to its destination. That's what LLNL researchers composed, a 'shear-thickening' liquid that can force its way through the turbulence of oil moving in the opposite direction. It's secret ingredient? Cornstarch.

The cornstarch mix is like a James Bond martini, shaken, but not stirred. It flows easily under normal conditions, but thickens when shaken, suppressing turbulence. After creating their new fluid, LLNL researchers then tested it in a tank of oil at speeds comparable to the Gulf gusher. They found that the starchy mix held steady, descending to the bottom of the column without breaking.

Should another spill come, it's unlikely that helicopters will be flying over; dropping giant boxes of Argo and Kingsford's finest. But the starchy success does give scientists and engineers a better sense of how to respond to future crises. It also gives them more insight to fundamental fluid forces, since the LLNL researchers published their work in the Jan. 31 issue of Physical Review LettersExternal link.

Each day, researchers at the Department of Energy and its National Labs are working on new innovations and finding ways to clean up messes on a scale even bachelor 'cooks' have never imagined. It's a comforting thought, something for responsible adults to ponder while kicking back with a Black and Tan. So go to the fridge, take out a frosted glass and two chilled bottles, place a spoon over the center of the glass and carefully begin pouring. Oops! CRASH! Quick, grab . . . grab the cornstarch!

For more information on the DOE Office of Science, please go to: http://www.science.energy.gov/.

Last modified: 3/15/2013 5:23:44 PM