The Jumping Flea

Two images of stirring bars or "fleas" spinning in a beaker

Nearly every lab has a magnetic stirrer for mixing fluids, but this ubiquitous tool still holds some surprises, like its ability to unexpectedly levitate. Magnetic stirrers consist of two main parts, a driving magnet that creates a rotating magnetic field, and a bar magnet – commonly referred to as the flea – that is submerged in the fluid to be stirred. When the driver’s rotating field is active, the flea will spin at the bottom of its container, keeping its magnetic field in sync with the driver.

But if you place the flea in a viscous enough fluid, the drag forces on the flea can pull it out of sync with the driver’s field. Above a certain speed, the flea will jump so that its field repulses the driver’s. That makes the flea levitate as it spins. Depending on the interplay of viscous and magnetic forces, that spin can be unstable (left) or stable (right). The researchers suggest that this peculiar behavior could help artificial swimmers propel themselves or lead to new methods for measuring fluid viscosity. (Image and research credit: K. Baldwin et al.; via APS; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)

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