Mixing fluids efficiently in confined spaces? Let viscous fingers do the stirring

May 12, 2011

By Denise Brehm
Civil & Environmental Engineering

Getting two fluids to mix in small or confined spaces is a big problem in many industries where, for instance, the introduction of one fluid can help extract another — like water pumped underground can release oil trapped in porous rock — or where the mixing of liquids is the essential point of the process. A key example of the latter is microfluidics technology, which allows for the controlled manipulation of fluids in miniscule channels often only a few hundred nanometers wide.

Microfluidic devices were first introduced in the 1980s and for many years were best known for their use in ink-jet printers, but have since been introduced in other fields, including the chemical analysis of blood or other sera in lab-on-a-chip technologies. These devices — usually not much larger than a stick of chewing gum — sometimes rely on nano-sized moving components, the geometry of the grooved channels or pulsed injections to induce a mixing of the fluids. But researchers in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering suggest that a simpler method might be equally, if not more, effective.

“Getting two fluids to mix in a very tight space is difficult because there’s not much room for a disorderly flow,” said Professor Ruben Juanes, the ARCO Associate Professor in Energy Studies and principal investigator on the research. “But with two fluids of highly contrasting viscosity, the thinner fluid naturally creates disorder, which proves to be a marvelously efficient means of mixing.”

In an analysis published online May 12 in Physical Review Letters (PRL), the researchers show that the injection of a thin or low-viscosity fluid into a much more viscous fluid (think of water spurting into molasses) will cause the two fluids to mix very quickly via a physical process known as viscous fingering. The thinner liquid, say the researchers, will form fingers as it enters the thicker liquid, and those fingers will form other fingers, and so on until the two liquids have mixed uniformly.

They also found that for maximum mixing to occur quickly, the ideal ratio of the viscosity of any two fluids depends on the speed at which the thinner liquid is injected into the thicker one.

The research team of Juanes, postdoctoral associate Luis Cueto-Felgueroso and graduate students Birendra Jha and Michael Szulczewski, made a series of controlled experiments using mixtures of water and glycerol, a colorless liquid generally about a thousand times more viscous than water. By alternating the viscosity of the liquids and the velocity of the injection flows, Jha was able to create a mathematical model of the process and use that to determine the best viscosit