Posted 19 Sep It's one of the key lessons for beach-bound toddlers: if you're going to make sand castles, you've got to plop your tushy down near the water. That's where you'll find damp sand -- dry sand just won't hack it.
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But why does damp sand magically hold the shape of a yogurt container after you dump it out? Amazingly enough, only recently have scientists approached this earth-shaking question as a problem of basic physics. Still, the influence of dampness on tiny particles is a big deal for any factory that handles powder, in industries ranging from pharmaceuticals to agriculture.
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Plugged plumbing is not just a problem in the cardiac biz. In research reported on June 18, , in the science journal Nature, Notre Dame University physicists Peter Schiffer, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi and colleagues have pinned the clumping of damp grains to the same phenomenon that causes water to bead up on a waxy Ferrari. On a Ferrari, it's called "surface tension. Then they put this mess in a container, and measured the angle of the cone that formed when they pulled the plug on the bottom.
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As they gradually increased the oil content, the glop began holding a steeper angle. Then, rather suddenly, "Clumping takes over, and instead of particles moving as individuals, they move as a clump," Schiffer says. Photo by Dave Tenenbaum. At this point, the sand-castle builder could start crafting parapets, crenellations, and other architectural details.
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Because they were using plastic spheres instead of irregular sand grains, the Notre Dame researchers could calculate the tiny amount of fluid -- less than one-ten-millionth of a cubic millimeter -- needed to hold each ball together. Almost all of the oil was doing something else -- like coating the spheres, or hiding in crevices.
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