In the first instance, shaped electrostatic fields create hydrostatic pressure (or motion) in dielectric media. When such media are fluids, a flow is produced. If the dielectric is a vacuum or a solid, no flow is produced. Such flow can be directed against the electrodes, generally to move the electrodes. In such case, the moving structure acts as an electric motor. Practical fields of interest of EHD are the common air ioniser, Electrohydrodynamic thrusters and EHD cooling systems.
In the second instance, the converse takes place. A powered flow of medium within a shaped electrostatic field adds energy to the system which is picked up as a potential difference by electrodes. In such case, the structure acts as an electrical generator.
Electrokinesis is the particle or fluid transport produced by an electric field acting on a fluid having a net mobile charge. (See -kinesis for explanation and further uses of the kinesis suffix.) Electrokinesis was first observed by Reuss in 1809 and has been studied extensively since the 19th century. Such study is known as electrohydrodynamics or electrokinetics, and was documented by Thomas Townsend Brown in 1921. It was later refined in scientific terms during the 1930s in conjunction with Dr. Paul Alfred Biefeld. The flow rate in such a mechanism is linear in the electric field. Electrokinesis is of considerable practical importance in microfluidics, since it offers a way to manipulate and convey fluids in microsystems using only electric fields, with no moving parts.
The force acting on the fluid, is given by the equation:
If the electrodes are free to move within the fluid, while keeping their distance fixed from each other, then such a force will actually propel the electrodes with respect to the fluid.
Electrokinesis has also been observed in biology, where it was found to cause physical damage to neurons by inciting movement in their membranes. It is also discussed in R.J.Elul's "Fixed charge in the cell membrane" (1967).
In October 2003, Dr. Daniel Kwok, Dr. Larry Kostiuk and two graduate students from the University of Alberta revealed a new method of hydrodynamic to electrical energy conversion by exploiting the natural electrokinetic properties of a liquid such as ordinary tap water, by pumping fluids through tiny microchannels with a pressure difference. This technology could some day provide a practical and clean energy storage device, replacing today's batteries, for devices such as mobile phones or calculators which would be charged up by simply pumping water to high pressure. Pressure would then be released on demand, for fluid flow to take place over the microchannels. When water travels over a surface, the ions that it is made up of "rub" against the solid, leaving the surface slightly charged. Kinetic energy from the moving ions would be thus converted to electrical energy. Although the power generated from a single channel is extremely small, millions of parallel channels can be used to increase the power output. Actually, this phenomenon, called streaming potential, has been well-known for about 200 years.
The fluid flow in microfluidic and nanofluidic devices are often stable and strongly damped by viscous forces (with Reynold's numbers of order unity or smaller). However, heterogeneous ionic conductivity fields in the presence of applied electric fields can, under certain conditions, generate an unstable flow field owing to electrokinetic instabilities (EKI). Conductivity gradients are prevalent in on-chip electrokinetic processes such as preconcentration methods (e.g. field amplified sample stacking and isoelectric focusing), multidimensional assays, and systems with poorly specified sample chemistry. The dynamics and periodic morphology of electrokinetic instabilities are similar to other systems with Rayleigh–Taylor instabilities.
Electrokinetic instabilities can be leveraged for rapid mixing or can cause undesirable dispersion in sample injection, separation and stacking. These instabilities are caused by a coupling of electric fields and ionic conductivity gradients that results in an electric body force. This coupling results in an electric body force in the bulk liquid, outside the electric double layer, that can generate temporal, convective, and absolute flow instabilities. Electrokinetic flows with conductivity gradients become unstable when the electroviscous stretching and folding of conductivity interfaces grows faster than the dissipative effect of molecular diffusion.
Since these flows are characterized by low velocities and small length scales the Reynolds number is below 0.01 and the flow is laminar. The onset of instability in these flows is best described as an electric Rayleigh number.
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