This blog provides commentary on interesting geological events occurring around the world in the context of my own work. This work is, broadly, geological fluid dynamics. The events that I highlight here are those that resonate with my professional life and ideas, and my goal is to interpret them in the context of ideas I've developed in my research. The blog does not represent any particular research agenda. It is written on a personal basis and does not seek to represent the University of Illinois, where I am a professor of geology and physics. Enjoy Geology in Motion! I would be glad to be alerted to geologic events of interest to post here! I hope that this blog can provide current event materials that will make geology come alive.

Banner image is by Ludie Cochrane..

Susan Kieffer can be contacted at s1kieffer at gmail.com

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

World's oldest experiment is a geological fluid dynamics experiment!

John Mainstone with the eighth drop in late 1990, about
2.5 years after the seventh drop fell!
In an article on April 30, CNN reported from Hong Kong about an experiment related to many geological processes--those in which the properties of a material are not linear.  In this experiment, the so-called "pitch drop, a substance like the petroleum tar is placed in a funnel, and the rate at which the pitch drops is measured.  The experiment began in 1927, the last pitch drop was in 2000, and there have been only 8 previous drops, an average of about one per decade.  The current scientist in charge of the experiment, Professor John Mainstone of the University of Qu
eensland in Australia, has never actually seen the pitch drop. He explains that he checks it about 5-6 times a day, but does "need some sleep"! In 1979, he missed the drop after skipping his usual Sunday campus visit, and in 1988 he missed it by 5 minutes after stepping out "to get a refreshment." The last drop, in 2000, was supposed to be captured on a film setup, but the equipment failed. The drop takes less than a tenth of a second, so even if he was present, if he blinked, he would have missed it.

Tar is distilled from wood, coal, or peat. It consists of hydrocarbons, resins, and alcohols. Because it acts like a solid, it was used in early days to preserve wooden ships against rot, the largest user being the Royal Navy. Tar may be best known to many people for the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. Many animals got trapped in the tar pits, died, and left behind their skeletons. I've not seen the tar pits in a very long time, but my memory is that they are a mixture of thick viscous tar and solid mounds.

Tars have been described as Bingham plastics between 85-180 C, having a defined yield stress and plastic viscosity.  Anyone who has the misfortune (like me, twice) to drive on a road that is undergoing resurfacing or repair knows what happens when tar cools below this temperature.  In the case of my car (just yesterday), the hot liquid material splashed up, cooled and solidified on the sides and back of my car. (Fortunately, there are products on the market to remove tar from vehicles, but they don't tell you that it also requires a lot of elbow grease!).

So, Professor Mainstone has shown that if you give even cold tar enough time (more than 80 years), tar isn't really a "solid" at all. Hmmmm....I wonder if I wait that long if it would fall off my car, or just drop down another inch or two!

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