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Assistant professor of physics receives grant to study particle movement in liquid

Kiran Ramsey | Digital Design Editor

Joseph Paulsen, an assistant professor of physics at SU, and his team of graduate students will study how particles such as sand move in viscous liquids like petroleum.

A Syracuse University assistant professor of physics received a $110,000 grant from the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund to study how particles move in very viscous liquids.

The two-year grant allows Joseph Paulsen and his team of graduate students to study how particles such as sand move in viscous liquids like petroleum in a non-Brownian fashion.

A Brownian motion refers to the random movement of particles in fluid due to the bombardment of surrounding molecules. The non-Brownian motion of the particles Paulsen studies refers to how these particles do not randomly disperse in a viscous liquid, unlike the uniform dispersal of liquid dye in water, said Arthur Hernandez, a graduate student in the physics department.

Paulsen and his team were awarded the grant by the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund because the research is relevant to pumping petroleum from the ground, said Thomas Clancy, program manager at ACS in the Office of Research Grants.

When oil is pumped from the ground, it often has particles such as sand and dirt in it, Clancy said. In turn, the additional sediment could affect how the oil flows, he said. Clancy added that it is a mandate of the Petroleum Research Fund to fund research relevant to petroleum, and in turn Paulsen’s research received the grant.

Clancy said this research extends beyond petroleum, as it is applicable to other particles and viscous liquids. Paulsen said he is trying to understand how particles organize in a viscous fluid when twisted.

His team discovered a “perfect time-symmetry” in these particles suspended in a viscous fluid, Hernandez said. When a twisting force is placed on the fluid with particles suspended in it and then removed, the particles move back to their original places uniformly, Hernandez said.

Paulsen compared this time-symmetry to bending — not folding — a piece of paper slightly and returning it to its original shape. The piece of paper looks exactly the same, despite having been distorted earlier.

But Paulsen and his team discovered when the fluid is twisted enough, a chaotic motion similar to diffusion happens.

“It’s this transition from a very boring state to a chaotic, irreversible state,” Hernandez said.

Paulsen and his team don’t only study particle motion in viscous liquids, but soft matter physics as well. Hernandez described soft matter physics as “things at room temperature. It’s like classical physics.”

Both Hernandez and Paulsen called soft matter physics an expanding subfield in physics. But it isn’t a new field in physics, Hernandez said.

“A lot of the things we study is just continuum mechanics, which had a lot of work done in the 19th century,” Hernandez said. “It stopped being seen as sexy or cool because offices were preoccupied with either the very big or the very small.”

Paulsen compared soft matter physics to art.

“It’s a very visual field. A lot of the data we take is taking the images and analyzing what we see. Personally, I find that that’s a very fun and rewarding way to do science,” Paulsen said. “You’re very close to the results that you’re getting and you can also get very aesthetically pleasing images from your research, so I have sort of an artistic outlet within science.”

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