CEE researchers explain mystery of gravity fingers
December 11, 2008
By Denise Brehm
Civil & Environmental Engineering
Researchers at MIT recently found an elegant solution to a sticky scientific problem in basic fluid mechanics: why water doesn’t soak into soil at an even rate, but instead forms what look like fingers of fluid flowing downward.
Scientists call these rivulets “gravity fingers,” and the explanation for their formation has to do with the surface tension where the water—or any liquid—meets the soil (or other medium). Knowing how to account for this phenomenon mathematically will have wide-ranging impact on science problems and engineering applications, including the recovery of oil from reservoirs and the sequestration of carbon underground.
The solution reported in the Dec. 12 issue of Physical Review Letters involves borrowing a mathematical phrase, if you will, from the mathematical description of a similar problem, a solution both simple and elegant that had escaped the notice of many researchers in earlier attempts to describe the phenomenon.
Co-authors Luis Cueto-Felgueroso and Ruben Juanes of the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering discovered the solution while studying the larger question of how water displaces oil in underground reservoirs. (Petroleum engineers commonly flush oil reservoirs with water to enhance oil recovery.)
“Our paper addresses a long-standing issue in soil physics,” said Cueto-Felgueroso. “Lab experiments of water infiltration into homogeneous, dry soil, repeatedly show the presence of preferential flow in the form of fingers. Yet, after several decades, the scientific community has been unable to capture this phenomenon using mathematical models.”
“This was the type of problem that required