Sometimes mistakes lead to great discoveries. After leaving a failed outreach demo overnight, researchers discovered a new mechanism for self-assembling particles. In the initial set-up, a layer of fresh water is poured atop a layer of denser, saltier water. This creates what’s known as a stably stratified fluid, with progressively denser mixtures of salt water as one moves downward. If you pour in particles of an intermediate density (heavier than fresh water and lighter than salt water), they’ll form a layer at one height, and, if you wait overnight, those particles will slowly form a disk-like raft.
This self-assembly is driven by fluid dynamics — not by any attraction between the particles. Because the particles are unable to absorb salt, their boundaries distort the concentration gradients in the surrounding fluid. This generates subtle currents at the particle boundaries, like in the picture above, where flow moves toward the particle at the equator and away at the poles. Larger particle clusters generate stronger flows, allowing them to attract even more particles.
Although the speeds involved are quite slow, this mechanism may play an important role in nature, where stratified flows are common. The researchers speculate, for example, that the effect could be important in the clustering of microplastics in the ocean. (Image and research credit: R. Camassa et al.; see also R. McLaughlin; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)