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Cleaning oil spills drop by drop

By Matin Durrani

If you want to get your research results noticed by us here at Physics World headquarters, you can always try e-mailing us a copy of your paper, preferably well before it’s about to be published.

But Burak Eral from the physics of complex fluids group at the University of Twente in the Netherlands has taken a novel approach in flagging his research to us — he’s sent us a three-minute Youtube video consisting of a series of Powerpoint slides put to music.

As you can see, his tactic has worked. The video describes how Eral and his pals have studied the morphology of a drop clinging to a cylindrical fibre — a problem first studied by Joseph Fourier in the late 19th century.

If you can bear Eral’s rather soporiphic choice of music, you’ll find that the drops can either surround the fibre symmetrically, like a barrel, or attach themselves to one side of the fibre, rather like a clam-shell. By using the technique of “electrowetting”, Eral’s team was then able to reversibly change which form the drops adopt — with what they claim is “previously unachieved precision”.

The work has its practical side too as it could potentially lead to a way to clean oil spills in the world’s oceans. Eral envisages creating special fibres that could be dropped into the affected, oil-damaged region. Although the oil would naturally tend to form barrell-shaped drops around the fibre, the drops could be forced into adopting the clam-shell shape, which are much easier to wash off from the fibre. The result: cleaner oceans with the oil drained safely away.

Eral is not, of course, the first physicist to find the lure of creating an educational video about their work. In fact, you can find plenty of these “video abstracts” at the New Journal of Physics — an open-access journal published by the Institute of Physics, which also publishes

Eral’s full paper about his work appears in the journal Soft Matter

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