Swapping Emulsions

Macro shot of oil droplets in water.

Chemically speaking, oil and water don’t mix. But with a little fluid mechanical effort, it’s possible to make them an emulsion — a mixture of oil droplets in water or water droplets in oil. Researchers in the Netherlands discovered that the viscosity of these emulsions depends critically on which of those mixtures you have.

To create their emulsions, the team used a tank consisting of two concentric cylinders. When the inner cylinder spins, it creates a well-understood flow field between the inner and outer cylinder. By varying the ratio of oil to water in the tank, they could explore a wide range of emulsions. They found that the emulsion’s viscosity changed dramatically when the emulsion shifted from oil droplets in water to water droplets in oil, something known as a catastrophic phase inversion. During this switch the viscosity dropped from 3 times higher than pure water to 2 times lower! (Image credit: A_Different_Perspective; research credit: D. Bakhuis et al.; via APS Physics; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)

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