Phenomena

Engineering Droplets

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A jet of falling liquid doesn’t remain a uniform cylinder; instead, it breaks into droplets. In this video, Bill Hammack explores why this is and what engineers have learned to do to control the size of the droplets formed.

The technical name for this phenomenon is the Plateau-Rayleigh instability. It begins (like many instabilities) with a tiny perturbation, a wobble in the falling jet. This begins a game of tug of war. One of the competitors, surface tension, is trying to minimize the surface area of the liquid, which means breaking it into spherical droplets. But doing so requires forcing some of the the liquid to flow upward, against both gravity and the liquid’s inertia. The battle takes some time, but eventually surface tension wins and the jet breaks up.

That’s not necessary a bad thing. It’s actually key to many engineering processes, like ink-jet printing and rocket combustion, as Bill explains in the full video. (Video and image credit: B. Hammack; submitted by @eclecticca)

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