Avalanche Model

Look Out Below!
November 18, 2014

This picture came across my desk this morning, and it caught my attention because it is many things in one. It is a sand dune, a rocky hillside, a snow-capped peak, an asphalt road and a closet filled with too many hats.

Avalanche ModelThis picture is a computerized “beads-in-a-box” model. Physicists in the Behringer group at Duke University are using these models to study how similar systems in the real world respond to different forces.

The beads represent a closely packed granular material and the lines represent the forces between beads. Red lines are stronger forces than yellow lines, which are stronger than green lines.

Behringer and his colleagues were able to generate this picture by submerging a group of gel grains in a fluorescent dye, and charting how the grains move when they are compressed with a piston.

These lab-scale models mimic real-world systems of packed grains, such as asphalt and packed snow. By studying how these systems deal with external forces, scientists and engineers can more accurately judge how a road will stand up to heavy traffic or what conditions are most likely to lead to a landslide or an avalanche, and in a practical environment.

Behringer’s team is currently working on more in depth analysis of these models to determine things like what arrangements will hold the beads in place and exactly how the forces stack up in larger systems.

For more pictures like this, check out Duke University’s 1100 Words blog.

- Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, engineering, medicine and the environment in North Carolina.