November 6, 2008

Jupiter's Shrinking Red Spot, Oil Spills, Spreading Germs, Flexible Flying Machines, and the Mysteries of Sand Ripples on Mars

Ever since the ancient thinker Archimedes shouted "Eureka" in the tub, inspired as he watched the water spill out, scientist though the ages have solved many of life's mysteries by considering how fluids flow. Today, the field of fluid dynamics addresses some of the most important questions in modern astronomy, engineering, alternative energy, and medicine. Later this month, the largest scientific meeting of the year devoted to the dynamics of fluids convenes in San Antonio, Texas.

The 61st Annual Meeting of the American Physical Society (APS) Division of Fluid Dynamics takes place from November 23-25 at the San Antonio Convention Center and it brings together researchers from across the globe. Reporters are invited to attend the conference free of charge. Registration instructions and other information may be found at the end of this news release. Brief highlights of some of the more than 1,500 presentations at the meeting are listed below.

Contents of this Release

  • General Highlights of the Meeting
  • Information for Journalists
  • Other Meeting Information

General Highlights of the Meeting

  1. Jupiter's Great Red Spot is Shrinking
  2. The Physics of Oil Spill Cleanups
  3. Trapping Greenhouse Gasses (Without Leaks)
  4. Are Flexible, Flapping Flying Machines in Our Future?
  5. Walkers' Wakes Can Spread Germs in Airplanes
  6. Pulsating Jets May Improve Jet Engine Performance and Efficiency
  7. Modeling Embryonic Heart Development
  8. Unlocking the Mystery of Martian Sand Ripples


The best map of wind speeds on Jupiter ever produced proves that the massive weather system known as the Great Red Spot has shrunken over the past dozen years. Understanding cloud patterns on distant planetary surfaces, such as those at Saturn or Jupiter, is potentially confusing because clouds deform over time. Using sophisticated software, scientists at the University of California at Berkeley have been able to take the deformations into account (and the much easier-to-deal-with factor of the planet's rotation) and have calculated the best velocity maps yet for the surface of Jupiter.

Using data recorded by the Galileo and Cassini spacecraft, views of Jupiter's surface have been made that essentially factor out the planet's rotation, simplifying our impression of what is happening to the cloud decks. For mid latitudes, the velocity resolution for this mapping procedure is 3 meters-per-second. For higher latitudes, the resolution is 3-6 meters-per-second. The maps consist of tens of millions of velocity measurements.

According to Berkeley scientist Xylar Asay-Davis these maps represent the highest resolution and highest accuracy full-planet map ever produced. With this approach, such meteorological features as the Great Red Spot or the Red Oval can be monitored more carefully than before. The high-precision velocity measurements show definitively that the Great Red Spot has shrunk over the past dozen years, says Asay-Davis.

Asay-Davis's talk, "Velocity Fields of Jovian Dynamical Features using the Advection Corrected Correlation Image Velocimetry Method" will be held at 8:13 a.m. on Sunday, November 23, 2008, in Ballroom B of the San Antonio Convention Center.


Oil spills are a major environmental problem because they often occur at sea and in remote, ecologically-sensitive areas where their impact on birds, sea mammals and subsurface life may last for years. The best way to mitigate this damage is to clean up spills immediately, and typically this starts with skimming off as much oil as possible. Such cleanups may leave large areas covered with a thin slick of spilled oil, which is often dispersed by spraying the spill area with chemical "surfactants" that break the film into small oil droplets that are consumed by bacteria, dissolved, evaporated, or attached to small solid particles and sink to the bottom of the ocean.

When dispersants are spayed over a spill in the open sea, the turbulent mixing forced by ocean currents and the wind actually helps in the cleanup process, but how much such turbulence contributes is not completely understood scientifically. Up to now, the breakup of oil mixed with dispersants has not been thoroughly studied in the laboratory, and there is little information on how wind, weather, and other local conditions contribute to the effectiveness of a cleanup process.

Now Johns Hopkins graduate student Balaji Gopalan and his mentor Professor Joseph Katz have imaged the dispersion of tens of thousands of oil droplets in carefully controlled laboratory settings and observed the effect of local turbulence on this process. Pre-Mixing the oil with the commercial dispersant COREXIT 9527, they observed how it breaks into numerous tiny droplets smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. Following each droplet in three-dimensions, they observed how tails/thread like structure grew from its surface, the thickness of the tails being less than 17 micron in size, and the breakup of which could produce extremely small droplets.

This better understanding of the basic physics of the dispersion process should allow environmental engineers to better predict how well dispersants will work in the field, says Gopalan, which should help inform decision makers during major oil spills. The work is part of a large collaboration between biologists, ecologists, physical oceanographers, computer modelers, and engineers, primarily associated with the Coastal Response Research Centre, that aims to model and predict the fate of oil after it spills, taking into account the properties of the oil, dispersant, weather conditions, and ecological data. In the future, an improved "response model" based on this larger collaboration may suggest the optimal approach to cleaning up any specific oil spill.

Gopalan's talk, "Formation of Long Tails during Breakup of Oil Droplets Mixed with Dispersants in Locally Isotropic Turbulence" will be held at 8:39 a.m. on Tuesday, November 25, 2008, in Room 101B of the San Antonio Convention Center.


Of all the possible ways of reducing future greenhouse gas emissions, one of the most immediately feasible is carbon dioxide "sequestration," which involves compressing the gas into a liquid and piping it deep underground instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. The Earth has abundant geological formations known as saline aquifers that would seem to be ideal storage bins for such sequestered carbon.

However, says Jerome Neufeld of the University of Cambridge in England, if carbon sequestration is to play a major role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the process needs to be deployed on a global scale, and new tools will be needed to monitor the long-term stability and fate of trapped gas.

The principle of sequestration is simple. Saline aquifers are basically porous regions of rock soaked with brackish fluids. The density of carbon dioxide is much less than that of the brine, so gas pumped into the aquifer will rise through the porous rock until it hits an impermeable "cap" rock. Over very long time scales, trapped carbon dioxide will saturate the brine and become mineralized. But what happens in the short term? If you pump carbon dioxide into saline aquifers, will it stay put and mineralize or leak away completely?

Neufeld and his colleagues have created a simple tool to predict the fate of carbon dioxide "plumes" rising though aquifers after being pumped underground. Their model shows how the shape of rising plumes is influenced by the structure of the surrounding rock, and it suggests that there are advantages to injecting carbon dioxide into reservoirs that are like geological layer cakes, with alternating stacks of porous and seal rock. When a plume reaches an impermeable boundary, it spreads until it can rise again, filling out a shape that looks like an inverted Christmas tree. As the plume pools it mixes with the brine, ultimately resulting in a more stable long-term sequestration.

Neufeld's talk, "Plume dynamics in heterogeneous porous media" will be held at 11:48 a.m. on Tuesday, November 25, 2008, in Room 003A of the San Antonio Convention Center.


Modern aircraft have been fabulously successful with rigid wings and rotors. But just imagine the flying machines that would be possible if we could understand and harness the most efficient and acrobatic airfoils in nature: the flexible wings of the bat.

The aerodynamics of "compliant" structures, such as bat wings, are very complicated because both the structure and airflow change and adapt to each other in a highly nonlinear way. Bats' wing bones are even flexible, unlike those of birds, which gives the mammals added control but is an additional challenge for scientists trying to understand them. Kenny Breuer's research group at Brown University is designing a series of fundamental experiments that will allow scientists to isolate, observe and analyze a variety of specific flow-structure interactions that are important in understanding bat flight and, in general, the aerodynamics of compliant structures. Ultimately, Breuer expects that experiments like these will yield insights enabling new generations of flying machines that are impossible to consider today.

In his talk at the 61st Annual Meeting of the APS Division of Fluid Dynamics in San Antonio, Arnold Song, who is one member of this research group, will describe the basic motions -- and their aerodynamic implications -- that he and his colleagues at Brown have discovered so far by measuring how paddles and stretched ribbons of sailcloth vibrate in manmade breezes in a wind tunnel. As the airflow increases, for example, a paddle on a post first twists and then flaps, like a stop sign being pummeled by hurricane-force winds. The ribbon's behavior is more complicated, but also essential for understanding how bat wings or other compliant structures generate lift so efficiently.

Song's talk, "On Vortex Induced Motion in Compliant Structures," will be held at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, November 23, 2008, in Room 204B of the San Antonio Convention Center.


Airliner ventilation systems are designed to limit passengers' exposure to airborne particles -- from ill travelers' contagious germs to terrorists' aerosol biohazards. Vents in a plane's center ceiling direct air out and down toward the floor below the windows, creating a swirling flow pattern within each row of seats that effectively confines contaminants to a single row or, at worst, its next-row neighbors.

But new research at Purdue University has shown that anyone -- a flight attendant or a passenger, for instance -- merely walking down an airliner's aisle will disrupt this carefully designed flow pattern by creating a wake of eddies that can spread contaminants as far as 10 rows away. Moreover, lead scientist Michael Plesniak says, the eddies' interaction with the ventilation system's swirling flow creates a stagnant zone "at just the wrong place." The height of the stagnant zone is exactly where seated passengers breathe. Future research aims to devise ways for breaking up this stagnant zone and reducing the ability of wakes from people moving around the cabin to disperse contaminants.

In his presentation to the 61st APS Division of Fluid Dynamics in San Antonio, Plesniak will describe his team's research and how it is also helping to create a computational turbulence simulation software tool that airplane manufacturers and safety regulators could use to model complex, realistic cabin ventilation scenarios more rapidly and economically than is now possible. The tool could also be used to design ventilation systems for interiors of buildings, subways and tunnels.

Plesniak's talk, "Experimental Model of Contaminant Transport by a Moving Wake Inside an Aircraft Cabin," will be given at 5:06 p.m. on Monday, November 24, 2008, in Room 002A of the San Antonio Convention Center.


Actions similar to those of a pulsating water-massage shower head may lead to more effective control of rocket engines and cleaner, more efficient jet aircraft engines, UCLA scientists have discovered.

In her presentation to the 61st Annual Meeting of the APS Division of Fluid Dynamics in San Antonio, Juliett Davitian will describe new research into the behavior of "transverse" jets, which consist of gas or liquid injected into a crossflow of a similar fluid. Engine manufacturers use transverse jets to introduce gases into jet engines for reducing emissions or cooling the turbine blades. These jets are also used to control the thrust of rocket engines.

In some applications, rapid and thorough mixing of the jet and crossflow fluids is needed. In other cases, deep penetration of the jet into the crossflow is desired. Sometimes both characteristics are required. By studying the fluid-mechanical interactions between transverse jets and the crossflow under a wide range of controlled conditions, the UCLA scientists learned that pulsing the transverse jet fluid in sinusoidal or square-wave patterns, depending on the conditions and desired outcome, can greatly enhance mixing, penetration or both. Continuing research will explore the behavior of transverse jets of different densities, which have a wide range of practical applications in energy-generation devices, such as stationary power plants and utility burners.

Davitian's talk, "Open Loop Control of Self-Excited Transverse Jets," will be given at 5:15 p.m. on Sunday, November 23, 2008, in Room 002B of the San Antonio Convention Center.


Congenital heart diseases affect one percent of newborn babies and babies who are lost in the prenatal period, and the malformation of the circulatory system is responsible for 10 percent of stillbirths.

To give scientists new insight into the developing heart, math biologist Laura Miller, an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of North Carolina, along with mechanical engineer Arvind Santhanakrishnan and graduate student Anil Shenoy, constructed several dynamically scaled models of the embryonic heart within rigid plexiglass walls. The models represent the morphologies of different stages in heart development, and provide insight into the flow within the developing heart. Corresponding numerical simulations by Miller couple the electrophysiology to the flow patterns within a beating heart.

These physical and numerical models will help scientists gain a better understanding of the relationship between the fluid dynamics, electrophysiology, and biochemistry of the embryonic heart, which may allow doctors to detect the beginnings of congenital heart disease.

"The ultimate goal of the research would be to enable doctors to use electrocardiograms and ultrasounds for the early detection of congenital heart disease. It may also be possible to use techniques such as microfluidic surgery to correct problems in heart chamber and valve formation," Miller says.

Miller will describe the heart models in her talk, "Fluid-structure interaction and electrophysiology of the embryonic heart," at 10:43 am on Sunday, November 23, 2008, in Room 103A of the San Antonio Convention Center.


When the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity landed on fresh Martian sand ripples in 2004, its on-board microscope showed the grains there to be much finer than predicted, revealing a major mystery to be solved. As on Earth, Mars' famous dust storms loft the finest particles high into the atmosphere, while coarser particles bounce along the surface, forming ripples and dunes. Well-established theories developed for Earth ripples in air and water and extended to Martian surface conditions predicted that the transitional particle diameter between these behaviors on Mars would four times that of Earth's. Yet they were essentially the same. Why was the established theory wrong for Mars?

Numerical simulations performed by a team at Cornell University now suggest a plausible answer. It turns out that the combination of the Martian atmosphere's low density -- 100 times less than Earth's -- and the higher wind speeds necessary to move grains of any size on Mars conspire to make Martian winds less effective than Earth's in lifting particles high into the air. The simulations showed why: Particles react more slowly to an upward turbulent eddy on Mars (due to low atmospheric density) and the eddies themselves pass by so much faster (due to the high wind speeds) that they don't have the combination of power and time to elevate the larger particles, even in Mars' lower gravity.

David Korda will describe the team's simulation results at the APS 61st Annual Meeting of the Division of Fluid Dynamics. Korda's colleagues are preparing physical experiments to use in a NASA-Ames wind tunnel that can imitate Martian atmospheric conditions to see if the simulation's prediction is accurate.

Korda's talk, "On the transition between saltation and suspension on Earth and on Mars," will be held at 11:35 on Monday, November 24, 2008, in Ballroom B of the San Antonio Convention Center.