Convection Without Heat

Glycerol is a sweet, highly viscous fluid that’s very good at absorbing moisture from the ambient air. That’s why a drop of pure glycerol in laboratory conditions quickly develops convection cells – even when upside-down, as shown above. This is not the picture of Bénard-Marangoni convection we’re used to. There’s no temperature or density change involved; in fact, there’s no buoyancy involved at all! This convection is driven entirely by surface tension. As glycerol at the surface absorbs moisture, its surface tension decreases. This generates flow from the center of a cell toward its exterior, where the surface tension is higher. Conservation of mass, also known as continuity, requires that fresh, undiluted glycerol get pulled up in the wake of this flow. It, too, absorbs moisture and the process continues. (Image credit: S. Shin et al., pdf)

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