Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Turbulent convection in liquid metal with and without rotation.

PMID 23569262


The magnetic fields of Earth and other planets are generated by turbulent, rotating convection in liquid metal. Liquid metals are peculiar in that they diffuse heat more readily than momentum, quantified by their small Prandtl numbers, Pr < 1. Most analog models of planetary dynamos, however, use moderate Pr fluids, and the systematic influence of reducing Pr is not well understood. We perform rotating Rayleigh-Bénard convection experiments in the liquid metal gallium (Pr = 0.025) over a range of nondimensional buoyancy forcing (Ra) and rotation periods (E). Our primary diagnostic is the efficiency of convective heat transfer (Nu). In general, we find that the convective behavior of liquid metal differs substantially from that of moderate Pr fluids, such as water. In particular, a transition between rotationally constrained and weakly rotating turbulent states is identified, and this transition differs substantially from that observed in moderate Pr fluids. This difference, we hypothesize, may explain the different classes of magnetic fields observed on the Gas and Ice Giant planets, whose dynamo regions consist of Pr < 1 and Pr > 1 fluids, respectively.