Fundamentals of Fluid Flow in Porous Media


Chapter 3

Molecular Diffusion


If a few crystals of a colored material like copper sulfate are placed at the bottom of a tall bottle filled with water, the color will slowly spread through the bottle. At first the color will be concentrated in the bottom of the bottle. After a day it will penetrate upward a few centimeters. After several years the solution will appear homogeneous.

The process responsible for the movement of the colored material is molecular diffusion that often called simply diffusion, which is the thermal motion of all (liquid or gas) particles at temperatures above absolute zero. The rate of this movement is a function of temperature, viscosity of the fluid and the size (mass) of the particles. In gases, diffusion progresses at a rate of about 5 cm/ min; in liquids, its rate is about 0.05 cm/min; in solids, its rate may be only about 0.00001 cm/min. This slow rate of diffusion is responsible for its importance. In many cases, diffusion occurs sequentially with other phenomena. When it is the slowest step in the sequence, it limits the overall rate of the process. For example, diffusion often limits the efficiency of commercial distillations and the rate of industrial reactions using porous catalysts. It limits the speed with which acid and base react and the speed with which the human intestine absorbs nutrients. The result of diffusion is a gradual mixing of material.  Diffusion explains the net flux of molecules from a region of higher concentration to one of lower concentration, but it is important to note that diffusion also occurs when there is no concentration gradient.

In gases and liquids, the rates of these diffusion processes can often be accelerated by agitation. For example, the copper sulfate in the tall bottle can be completely mixed in a few minutes if the solution is stirred. This accelerated mixing is not due to diffusion alone, but to the combination of diffusion and stirring. Diffusion still depends on random molecular motions that take place over smaller distances. The agitation or stirring is not a molecular process, but a macroscopic process that moves portions of the fluid over much larger distances. After this macroscopic motion, diffusion mixes newly adjacent portions of the fluid. In other cases, such as the dispersal of pollutants, the agitation of wind or water produces effects qualitatively similar to diffusion; these effects, are called dispersion.




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