Research

The Catherine Wheel

Catherine wheel pattern forming in an avalanche

When particles of different sizes fall in an avalanche, they separate out by size. Smaller particles form one layer with another layer of larger particles over the top. This happens because the smaller particles tend to fall in between the larger ones, similar to the percolation theory in the Brazil nut effect. In a slowly rotating drum, this size segregation during an avalanche forms a distinctive pattern (above) called a Catherine wheel pattern. Here, the gray layers form from smaller iron particles, while the white layers are large particles of sugar. Notice that the pattern starts to form during each avalanche, but it freezes in place after grains pile up against the drum wall and cause a shock wave to run back up the avalanche. (Image credit: J. Gray and V. Chugunov, reprinted in J. Gray, source)

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