Surface-tension-driven Bénard (Marangoni) convection in liquid layers heated from below can exhibit a long-wavelength primary instability that differs from the more familiar hexagonal instability associated with Bénard. This long-wavelength instability is predicted to be significant in microgravity and for thin liquid layers. The instability is studied experimentally in terrestrial gravity for silicone oil layers 0.007 to 0.027 cm thick on a conducting plate. For shallow liquid depths (<.017 cm for 0.102 cm2 s−1 viscosity liquid), the system evolves to a strongly deformed long-wavelength state which can take the form of a localized depression (‘dry spot’) or a localized elevation (‘high spot’), depending on the thickness and thermal conductivity of the gas layer above the liquid. For slightly thicker liquid depths (0.017–0.024 cm), the formation of a dry spot induces the formation of hexagons. For even thicker liquid depths (>0.024 cm), the system forms only the hexagonal convection cells. A two-layer nonlinear theory is developed to account properly for the effect of deformation on the interface temperature profile. Experimental results for the long-wavelength instability are compared to our two-layer theory and to a one-layer theory that accounts for the upper gas layer solely with a heat transfer coefficient. The two-layer model better describes the onset of instability and also predicts the formation of localized elevations, which the one-layer model does not predict. A weakly nonlinear analysis shows that the bifurcation is subcritical. Solving for steady states of the system shows that the subcritical pitchfork bifurcation curve never turns over to a stable branch. Numerical simulations also predict a subcritical instability and yield long-wavelength states that qualitatively agree with the experiments. The observations agree with the onset prediction of the two-layer model, except for very thin liquid layers; this deviation from theory may arise from small non-uniformities in the experiment. Theoretical analysis shows that a small non-uniformity in heating produces a large steady-state deformation (seen in the experiment) that becomes more pronounced with increasing temperature difference across the liquid. This steady-state deformation becomes unstable to the long-wavelength instability at a smaller temperature difference than that at which the undeformed state becomes unstable in the absence of non-uniformity.
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