Taming chaos? German scientists force checkerboard patterns from turbulence, suggesting better control strategies

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Scientists at Germany's Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society are taming chemical chaos, by transforming turbulent spiral waves into highly uniform patterns.

The research, published in the 18 May issue of the journal, Science, may suggest new strategies for controlling a broad range of complex systems--such as the catalytic reactions that take place in cars, chemical factories, and the atmosphere. Because chemical waves also exist inside living cells, the study may ultimately prove useful for biotechnology, too.

How much control can scientists exert over chaos? Images of the Science experiment show blue and red stripes forming tidy, alternating rows, replacing a jumbled array of random turbulence.

These colorful images demonstrate a fundamental experiment in control: They reveal how the movement of (red) carbon monoxide molecules can be choreographed-during an oxidation reaction that releases carbon dioxide-to form regular patterns with (blue) oxygen atoms.

But, the principles at work in this simple system could someday be applied to far more complex industrial and environmental problems.

In addition to stripes, the Max-Planck team actually forced oxygen and carbon monoxide to form fractal-like designs across a platinum surface, similar to a checkerboard pattern. These "cluster" patterns repeated twice as fast as the random oscillations they replaced-a phenomenon called "period doubling," which demonstrates a high degree of control.

"Repeating cluster patterns have never been seen in this type of system before," said Harm Hinrich Rotermund, a co-author on the Science study, with Gerhard Ertl, Alexander S. Mikhailov and others. "Chemical turbulence can be very effectively controlled by our approach."

In theory, said Ertl, director of the department of physical chemistry at the F

Contact: Ginger Pinholster
American Association for the Advancement of Science

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