rayleigh benard convection


If you make a proper cup of hot chocolate this holiday, watch carefully and you just may catch some Rayleigh-Benard convection like the video above. (Note, video playback is 3x.) The canonical Rayleigh-Benard problem is one in which fluid is heated from below and cooled from above. For the cup of hot chocolate, the cooling comes from the colder, ambient air at the cocoa’s surface. Because cooler fluid is denser than warmer fluid, the cocoa near the surface will tend to sink down, allowing warmer cocoa to rise. As that warm cocoa reaches the surface, it too will cool and sink back down, continuing the cycle. The effect relies on buoyancy and, by extension, gravity; on the International Space Station, for example, astronauts would not observe such convection. The distinctive shape of the cells depends on the boundaries of the cup. This post is part of our weeklong holiday-themed fluid dynamics series. (Video credit: Armuotas)


Human eyesight is not always the best for observing how nature behaves around us. Fortunately, we’ve developed cameras and sensors that allow us to effectively see in wavelengths beyond those of visible light. What’s shown here is a frying pan with a thin layer of cooking oil. To the human eye, this would be nothing special, but in the infrared, we can see Rayeigh-Benard convection cells as they form. This instability is a function of the temperature gradient across the oil layer, gravity, and surface tension. As the oil near the bottom of the pan heats up, its density decreases and buoyancy causes it to rise to the surface while cooler oil sinks to replace it. Here the center of the cells is the hot rising oil and the edges are the cooler sinking fluid. The convection cells are reasonably stable when the pan is moved, but, even if they are obscured, they will reform very quickly.  (Video credit: C. Xie)


Here natural convection is explored experimentally in a quasi-2D environment. The researchers demonstrate how this phenomenon, which is much like that seen in a boiling pot, can be investigated by measuring the refractive distortions caused by the thin heated fluid layer. They also demonstrate types of boiling that can occur.  Typically, bubbles nucleate at the heated surface and then rise to pull hot fluid with them.  At high enough temperatures above the liquid’s boiling point, however, an unstable layer of vapor can form over the heated surface.  This “boiling crisis” or critical heat flux produces a marked reduction in heat transfer due to the insulation provided by the vapor layer. (Video credit: S. Wildeman et al.)


The icy plain of Sputnik Planum, located in Pluto’s heart-shaped Tombaugh Reggio, is criss-crossed with troughs that divide the plain into polygons.  The current interpretation of these features is that they are the result of thermal convection. As with Rayleigh-Benard convection cells on Earth, the interior of the polygons is formed by the upwelling of warmer, buoyant material, and the troughs between cells mark locations where cooled material convects back into the mantle. On Pluto, these cells consist of nitrogen ice (and occasional water ice like the dirty black chunk seen in the upper right photo) that slowly rises and sinks from the planet’s surface, constantly refreshing the surface features. This would explain why Sputnik Planum is missing evidence of typical older features like impact craters. (Image credits: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI)

Join FYFD all this week for a look at fluid dynamics and planetary science on Pluto! Check out the previous posts here.