Voltage-driven Liquid Metal Fractals

Engaging in collaborative research is a priority for faculty in our department. Examining problems from different viewpoints oftentimes leads to innovative solutions one specialized viewpoint might never be able to see.

In this case, the collaboration is between members of Professor Karen Daniels’ and her research group in the NCS Department of Physics and members of Professor Michael Dickey’s research group. Members of the combined research team discovered a new class of “fingering instabilities” in liquid metals. The metal they studied is gallium indium (EGaIn), which has the highest surface tension of any known liquid at room temperature.

Surface tension is the force exerted by the surface of a liquid that causes it to “bead up,” or form droplets. Water, for example, has a high surface tension, so it beads up, whereas alcohol, with a lower surface tension, tends to spread out. Liquid metals, such as mercury, have enormous surface tension and thus are almost always spherical.

The group discovered that applying low voltage to the surface of EGaIn causes the liquid metal to spread out and form snowflake-like fractal patterns. The work has implications for controlling the shape of liquid metals.

“Applying voltage to EGaIn forms a thin layer of oxide on the surface of the metal, which effectively lowers the surface tension,” Dickey says. “Normally, the tension of liquids can be lowered by adding surfactants – like putting soap or detergent in water – to the liquid. It’s easy to put soap into water, but hard to get the soap out. In contrast, the use of voltage to control the tension is interesting because it is reversible, and incredibly effective.”

“We also found that if you apply higher amounts of voltage to the metal it stops spreading and beads up again,” Daniels says. “That’s due to the amount of oxide produced – a small amount lowers the surface tension, but too much forms a crust over the metal and stops it spreading. So controlling the voltage is a nice way to control the spreading of the metal.”

The researchers recorded the metal’s behavior as the surface tension lowered. Less than one volt of electricity caused the metal to spread out and form different fractals, or patterns. Interestingly, the fractals formed by the EGaIn appear to be unique; that is, they do not match any currently described fractals. “Aside from being unusual, the other implication of these fractals is that in order for them to form the surface tension of the liquid metal must be close to zero,” Daniels says.

“This work suggests that not only does the formation of the oxide lower the surface tension of the liquid metal, but that it also creates compressive stresses – the opposite of tension – that help the metal spread out and form fractals,” Dickey says. “This is interesting because liquids are always under tension, and we now have a tool to apply compressive forces directly to the surface of a liquid. These properties give us greater control over the metal’s behavior.”

The work, “Oxidation-Mediated Fingering in Liquid Metals”, appears in Physical Review Letters, and is funded by the National Science Foundation (grants DMR-1608097 and CMMI-0954321) and the Air Force Research Lab. Daniels is corresponding author. Then CBE graduate student Dr. Collin Eaker, and undergraduate students David Hight and John O’Reagan contributed to the work.

The original article was written by Tracey Peake, Public Communication Specialist in University Communications at NC State.