Particles at a fluid interface will often gather into a collection known as a granular raft. The geometry of the interface where it meets individual particles, combined with the surface tension, creates the capillary forces that attract these particles to one another. Colloquially, this is called the Cheerio’s effect; it’s the same physics that draws those cereal chunks together in your bowl.
Once together, these granular rafts can be surprisingly difficult to break up. That’s the focus of a new study on erosion in granular rafts. As seen in the top image, the raft has to be moving quite quickly before individual beads get pulled away. The experimental set-up here is pretty neat, and it’s not apparent from the video, so I’ll take a moment to explain it. The particles you see are gathered at an interface between water and oil. To generate the movement we see, researchers take the metal cylinder seen at the left of the image and pull it downward. That curves the oil-water interface, effectively creating a hill for the raft to accelerate down.
To focus in on the forces necessary to separate individual particles, the researchers also looked at a pair of particles (bottom image). With this set-up, they could more easily track the geometry of the contact line where the oil, water, and bead meet. What they found is that the attractive forces generated between the beads are two orders of magnitude larger than predicted by classical theory. To correctly capture the effect, they needed a far more precise description of the contact line geometry around a sphere than is typically used. (Image and research credit: A. Lagarde and S. Protière)