Salty Comets

Many of the products we use every day in our homes behave like solids until the right force is applied. These yield-stress fluids are like hand sanitizer – strong enough to suspend millimeter-sized particles when still but capable of flowing easily when pumped. In hand sanitizer, this is because the fluid is made up of swollen microgel particles that are jammed together. To rearrange, they need a certain amount of force applied. The weight of the sugars, capsules, and particulates added to the product aren’t heavy enough to move the jammed microgels, so they stay suspended.

But researchers found that if they add a salt crystal of the same size and weight (bottom image), it sinks steadily through the gel. The salt’s velocity is constant; it doesn’t change with size as we might expect. That’s because it’s not falling by forcing the microgel particles to move. Instead, its salinity forces the microgel to release its absorbed liquid; basically, it’s collapsing the jammed particles. It falls steadily because it takes a given amount of time to collapse each gel particle.  (Image credits: microgel – N. Sharp; salt comet – A. Nowbahar et al.; research credit: A. Nowbahar et al.)

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