Morphological clues to wet granular pile stability

Nat Mater. 2008 Mar;7(3):189-93. doi: 10.1038/nmat2117. Epub 2008 Feb 10.


When a granular material such as sand is mixed with a certain amount of liquid, the surface tension of the latter bestows considerable stiffness to the material, which enables, for example, sand castles to be sculpted. The geometry of the liquid interface within the granular pile is of extraordinary complexity and strongly varies with the liquid content. Surprisingly, the mechanical properties of the pile are largely independent of the amount of liquid over a wide range. We resolve this puzzle with the help of X-ray microtomography, showing that the remarkable insensitivity of the mechanical properties to the liquid content is due to the particular organization of the liquid in the pile into open structures. For spherical grains, a simple geometric rule is established, which relates the macroscopic properties to the internal liquid morphologies. We present evidence that this concept is also valid for systems with non-spherical grains. Hence, our results provide new insight towards understanding the complex physics of a large variety of wet granular systems including land slides, as well as mixing and agglomeration problems.