Bringing order to chaotic bubbles can make mining more sustainable

Credit: CC0 Public Domain
Columbia Engineering researchers have discovered a new way to control bubble motion. This could one day allow us to separate useful metals and useless dirt with less energy.

Only a fraction of metals, such as copper, used in many electronics, and lithium, are useful. The vast majority is just dirt-like particles.

Chris Boyce, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Columbia Engineering, stated that "we have to separate useful metals and the useless particles. We do this by blowing up air bubbles through them." This process consumes large amounts of energy and water. It can lead to climate change and water scarcity, which we want to avoid. This is partly because we cannot control the movement of these bubbles.

Boyce and his coworkers now reveal that they can vibrate the particles and blow air through them to make their normally chaotic bubble motion more orderly and manageable. Vibrations cause particles to shift quickly from solid-like to fluid-like behaviors, which helps to structure the bubbles into regular triangular arrays.

Boyce stated that the simple addition and transformation of vibrations from chaos to order can be beautiful. Their study is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on August 23, 2009.

This can be used to optimize separation methods and scale up the control of bubble behavior. Boyce stated that he believes the ability to structure flows will reduce the energy and water consumption in mining, as well as increase the efficiency of clean energy processes.

Researchers now plan to use this structured bubbling in sustainable mining separation techniques.

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