Layered Latte Physics

Latte lovers may be familiar with the layered latte, a beverage with distinctive horizontal layers mixing espresso and milk, but you may not have taken the time to wonder how these layers form. Like many layering phenomena in our oceans, the layered latte is the result of double-diffusive convection. This means that there are two variables that both affect density in the fluid mixture and that they act at different rates.

In the latte, those factors are 1) the different densities of the milk and espresso and 2) density changes caused as the latte cools to room temperature. A layered latte forms when the lighter espresso is poured into denser milk. If it’s poured quickly enough, the momentum of the pour forces some of the espresso down into the milk, despite the buoyant force that tries to keep the espresso on top. So that initial pour sets up a density gradient that runs from pure espresso at the top to pure milk on the bottom, with varying mixtures of the two in between.

The distinct layers won’t form until the latte begins cooling off. Along the walls of the container, heat is lost more quickly, causing fluid to cool and start sinking. But a specific bit of fluid can only sink until the fluid surrounding it is the same density. That can carry a cooler bit of latte to the bottom of a layer, but not into the denser layer below. At this point, our bit of latte moves inward, starts to warm up, and circulates up through the center of its layer. As when it sank, the fluid can only move up until it encounters a layer with equal or lesser density, at which point it must move horizontally instead. This thermal convection, combined with the density gradient formed by the initial pour, sets up the distinctive layers of the latte. The layers are quite stable – neither gentle stirring nor taking a sip will disrupt them for long – provided the drink remains warmer than the surrounding air. (Image credits: kopeattugu/Instagram, N. Xue et al.; research credit: N. Xue et al.; via NYTimes; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)

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