Phenomena

Convection Cells

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Human eyesight is not always the best for observing how nature behaves around us. Fortunately, we’ve developed cameras and sensors that allow us to effectively see in wavelengths beyond those of visible light. What’s shown here is a frying pan with a thin layer of cooking oil. To the human eye, this would be nothing special, but in the infrared, we can see Rayeigh-Benard convection cells as they form. This instability is a function of the temperature gradient across the oil layer, gravity, and surface tension. As the oil near the bottom of the pan heats up, its density decreases and buoyancy causes it to rise to the surface while cooler oil sinks to replace it. Here the center of the cells is the hot rising oil and the edges are the cooler sinking fluid. The convection cells are reasonably stable when the pan is moved, but, even if they are obscured, they will reform very quickly.  (Video credit: C. Xie)

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