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Electrification of sand on Titan and its influence on sediment transport

Abstract

Triboelectric, or frictional, charging is a ubiquitous yet poorly understood phenomenon in granular flows. Recognized in terrestrial volcanic plumes and sand storms, such electrification mechanisms are possibly present on Titan. There, dunes and plains of low-density organic particles blanket extensive regions of the surface. Unlike Earth, Titan hosts granular reservoirs whose physical and chemical properties possibly enhance the effects of charging on particle motion. Here we demonstrate in laboratory tumbler experiments under atmospheric conditions and using organic materials analogous to Titan that Titan sands can readily charge triboelectrically. We suggest that the resulting electrostatic forces are strong enough to promote aggregation of granular materials and affect sediment transport on Titan. Indeed, our experiments show that electrostatic forces may increase the saltation threshold for grains by up to an order of magnitude. Efficient electrification may explain puzzling observations on Titan such as the mismatch between dune orientations and inferred wind fields. We conclude that, unlike other Solar System bodies, nanometre-scale electrostatic processes may shape the geomorphological features of Titan across the moon’s surface.

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Figure 1: Experimental apparatus.
Figure 2: Surface charge densities and charge-to-mass ratios.
Figure 3: Electrostatic-to-inertial ratio.
Figure 4: Electrostatics and the saltation threshold.

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Acknowledgements

J.S.M.H. acknowledges funding from the NSF through an GRFP Fellowship. G.D.M. acknowledges funding from the DoD through an NDSEG Fellowship. Additional funding was provided by grant NSF EAR 1150794.

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Authors

Contributions

J.S.M.H. designed experimental apparatus and measurement electronics, conducted experiments, and performed analysis. G.D.M. conducted experiments and helped with analysis. J.D. provided support with theoretical models of grain motion. M.J.M. provided support regarding material selection. D.M.B. provided support regarding aeolian dynamics on Titan. A.G.H. provided initial conceptualization of the project. J.M. provided laboratory support and conducted experiments. J.J.W. provided support regarding remote sensing.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to J. S. Méndez Harper.

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Méndez Harper, J., McDonald, G., Dufek, J. et al. Electrification of sand on Titan and its influence on sediment transport. Nature Geosci 10, 260–265 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2921

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