How granular material becomes solid: Stress causes clogs in coffee and coal

December 14, 2011
Photoelastic grains under shear. Photo: Behringer Group, Duke University

It's easy to get in a jam. But it's much harder to explain exactly how or when it started.

Scientists still aren't sure what causes clogs in flowing macroscopic particles, like corn, and coal chunks. But new experiments by Duke physicist Robert Behringer and his colleagues suggest that when particles undergo a force called shear strain, they jam sooner than expected. The results appear in the Dec. 15 issue of Nature.

Shear strain is sort of like cupping sand between your hands, and then, without changing the width between them, moving one hand forward and the other hand backward, Behringer said. Not much sand flows between your hands with a force like this.

Many flows, including those of nuts, coffee and coal, inherently produce this type of movement among , but the design and engineering for hoppers and other dispensers that don't account for it won't work well, Behringer said.

The new work "points out the deficiencies in our current for when granular materials jam," said Corey O'Hern, an expert in at Yale University who was not involved in the new study.

A deeper understanding of this point will lead to the design of new composite granular matter and also to the development of advanced materials that could counter weapons of mass destruction, including amplifiers and other countermeasures for deflecting blast waves, he said.

In past studies, calculating how grains flow estimated their jamming point without accounting for friction forces among individual particles. Eliminating friction makes jamming easier to explain mathematically. It also suggested that just an increase in density would cause granular materials to jam.

"It's been an uphill battle to convince the scientific community that friction is important, and that shear causes jamming where it was not expected. No other experimentalists have really looked at what's happening with both friction and shear," Behringer said.

In his new experiments, Behringer and his team controlled the number of discs placed in a box designed to produce a shear strain. The researchers applied the shearing strain while allowing the discs to flow where they wanted.

The discs had distinct properties that allowed the team to measure the force each one experienced due to friction and shearing. The team also took pictures showing how those forces developed into branched chains, which spread through many discs and ultimately block their flow. The images and experiments show that because of friction forces and shear strain, the discs jammed when they were much farther apart, or at a lower density, than what had been previously predicted.

It's not just the number of particles that put them in a jam, it's also the strain and the real-world forces, like friction, that cause the back-up, Behringer said. The discovery could change the design of coal and grain silos and even the bulk dispensers at Whole Foods.

Friction and shear reveal the richness of possible states of granular matter, pointing scientists down a road paved with new discoveries, said Daryl Hess, program director for condensed matter and materials theory at NSF. Studying these new states of granular matter may also expose deeper connections between jamming and seemingly unrelated phenomena, from earthquakes to transformations occurring in other kinds of matter, like water to ice, he said.

Explore further: Scaling Friction Down to the Nano/Micro Realm

More information: "Jamming by Shear," Bi, D. Zhang, J., Chakraborty, B., and Behringer, R. Nature. 480:7377, 355-358. DOI: 10.1038/nature10667

Related Stories

Scaling Friction Down to the Nano/Micro Realm

May 28, 2004

An improved method for correcting nano- and micro-scale friction measurements has been developed by researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The new technique should help designers produce ...

Staying out of jams

July 23, 2007

What do sand, coal, cereal, ice cubes, marbles, gravel, sugar, pills, and powders have in common" They are all granular materials, members of an unruly family of substances that refuse to completely conform to the laws of ...

Recommended for you

CERN collides heavy nuclei at new record high energy

November 25, 2015

The world's most powerful accelerator, the 27 km long Large Hadron Collider (LHC) operating at CERN in Geneva established collisions between lead nuclei, this morning, at the highest energies ever. The LHC has been colliding ...

'Material universe' yields surprising new particle

November 25, 2015

An international team of researchers has predicted the existence of a new type of particle called the type-II Weyl fermion in metallic materials. When subjected to a magnetic field, the materials containing the particle act ...

Exploring the physics of a chocolate fountain

November 24, 2015

A mathematics student has worked out the secrets of how chocolate behaves in a chocolate fountain, answering the age-old question of why the falling 'curtain' of chocolate surprisingly pulls inwards rather than going straight ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Dec 15, 2011
I just went through a series of prototypes for an animal feed system I'm working on, facing the same problems, I call it " granular locking ", but I can tell you the best solution for the problem is also the simplest.

Dec 15, 2011
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
1 / 5 (1) Dec 15, 2011
The mixture of grains creates the light conductive paths which can be visualized under proper illumination.


In dense aether model the foamy streaks of dark matter can be interpreted in the same way: like jams of granular material forming the vacuum.

1 / 5 (1) Dec 15, 2011
This insight lead to the testable predictions, because the structure of jamming paths can be derived from hypersphere packing geometry, as described with Lie gauge groups. The recent Lissy Garrett's E8 theory is based on the same geometry, so that the geometry of particle packing has an application even for nuclear physics.
not rated yet Dec 15, 2011
@Isaacsname Vibrations?

No sir, that gives you what's called the Brazil nut effect, which can be very useful in itself, but not for what I am doing.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.