Constructing sandcastles on the seaside is a time-honored custom all over the world, elevated into an artwork type in recent times due to lots of of annual competitions. Whereas the fundamental underlying physics is well-known, physicists have continued to realize new insights into this fascinating granular materials during the last decade or so. The most recent breakthrough comes from Nobel Laureate Andre Geim’s laboratory on the College of Manchester in England, the place Geim and his colleagues have solved a mathematical puzzle—the “Kelvin equation”—courting again 150 years, in keeping with a brand new paper simply printed in Nature.
All you really want to make a sandcastle is sand and water; the water acts as a sort of glue holding the grains of sand collectively by way of capillary forces. Research have proven that the perfect ratio for constructing a structurally sound sandcastle is one pail of water for each eight pails of sand, though it is nonetheless doable to construct an honest construction with various water content material. However if you wish to construct the sort of elaborate, towering sandcastles that win competitions, you would be smart to stay with that very best ratio.
Again in 2008, physicists determined to delve a little bit deeper into why sand turns into sticky when it will get moist. Utilizing X-ray microtomography, they took 3D photos of moist glass beads of comparable form and measurement as grains of sand. After they added liquid to dry beads, they noticed liquid “capillary bridges” forming between particular person beads. Including extra liquid induced the bridges to develop bigger, and as that occurred, the bead surfaces got here into contact with extra water, additional rising the binding impact. Nonetheless, the elevated binding impact was canceled out by a corresponding lower of the capillary forces because the bridge constructions grew larger. The staff concluded that even when the moisture content material modifications, the forces binding the beads collectively don’t change.
It is much like how cleaning soap bubbles will are typically spherical as a result of that is the form that minimizes the whole floor space, thereby utilizing the least vitality, in keeping with Daniel Bonn, a physicist on the College of Amsterdam who has carried out a number of experiments with sand through the years. Bonn has grow to be one thing of an professional on what’s concerned with constructing the right sandcastle. “Likewise, a small quantity of water between two sand grains types a small liquid bridge that minimizes the floor space between the water and the air,” he informed Vice in 2015. “If one then strikes one grain with respect to the opposite, one routinely creates floor space. This prices vitality, and due to this fact there will likely be a resistance to deformation.”
Mathematically, this sort of capillary condensation—i.e., how water vapor from ambient air will condense spontaneously inside porous supplies or between touching surfaces—is often described by an equation devised by Sir William Thompson (later Lord Kelvin) and first referenced in an 1871 paper. It is a macroscopic equation that nonetheless has confirmed to be remarkably correct right down to the 10-nanometer scale, however the lack of an entire description that may account for even tinier scales has lengthy annoyed physicists.
Typical humidity for this sort of condensation is between 30 and 50 %, however at molecular scales of 1 nanometer or much less (a water molecule is about 0.3nm in diameter), just one or two molecular layers of water would be capable to match inside 1nm-thick capillaries. At that scale, the Kelvin equation didn’t seem to make sense. Which may not matter for constructing sandcastles, however capillary condensation can also be related to many microelectronic, pharmaceutical, and meals processing industries. Geim and his colleagues discovered a strategy to overcome the longstanding experimental challenges of learning capillaries on the molecular scale.
Geim received the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for his groundbreaking experiments on graphene, a skinny flake of atypical carbon only one atom thick, giving the fabric uncommon properties. Physicists struggled to isolate graphene from graphite (similar to that present in pencils), however Geim and his Manchester colleague Konstantin Novoselov developed a novel methodology utilizing used Scotch tape to gather the atom-thick flakes from graphite. He additionally received an Ig Nobel prize for his discovery of direct diamagnetic levitation of water—work that famously concerned utilizing magnets to levitate a frog within the lab. And he as soon as created a gecko-inspired sticky tape sturdy sufficient to droop a Spider-Man motion determine from the ceiling indefinitely.
For this newest work, Geim’s staff painstakingly constructed molecular-scale capillaries by layering atom-thin crystals of mica and graphite on high of one another, with slender strips of graphene in between every layer to function spacers. With this methodology, the staff constructed capillaries of various peak, together with capillaries that had been only one atom excessive—simply sufficient to suit one layer of water molecules, the smallest such construction doable.
Geim et al. discovered that the Kelvin equation remains to be a wonderful qualitative description of capillary condensation on the molecular scale—contradicting expectations, for the reason that properties of water are anticipated to grow to be extra discrete and layered on the 1nm scale. Apparently in that regime, there are microscopic changes to the capillaries, which suppress any extra results which may in any other case trigger the equation to interrupt down as anticipated.
“This got here as an enormous shock. I anticipated an entire breakdown of typical physics,” stated co-author Qian Yang. “The previous equation turned out to work nicely. A bit disappointing but in addition thrilling to lastly remedy the century previous thriller. So we will calm down, all these quite a few condensation results and associated properties are actually backed by laborious proof reasonably than a hunch that ‘it appears to work so due to this fact it must be OK to make use of the equation.'”
“Good idea usually works past its applicability limits,” stated Geim. “Lord Kelvin was a exceptional scientist, making many discoveries however even he would absolutely be stunned to search out that his idea—initially contemplating millimeter-sized tubes—holds even on the one-atom scale. Actually, in his seminal paper Kelvin commented about precisely this impossibility. So our work has proved him each proper and flawed, on the identical time.”
DOI: Nature, 2020. 10.1038/s41586-020-2978-1 (About DOIs).