Effects of turbulent aggregation on clay floc breakup and implications for the oceanic environment

Matthew J. Rau, Steven G. Ackleson, Geoffrey B. Smith

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13 Scopus citations


Understanding how turbulence impacts marine floc formation and breakup is key to predicting particulate carbon transport in the ocean. While floc formation and sinking rate has been studied in the laboratory and in-situ, the breakup response to turbulence has attracted less attention. To address this problem, the breakup response of bentonite clay particles flocculated in salt water was studied experimentally. Flocs were grown in a large aggregation tank under unmixed and mixed aggregation conditions and then subjected to turbulent pipe flow. Particle size was quantified using microscope imaging and in-situ measurements obtained from standard optical oceanographic instruments; a Sequoia Scientific LISST-100X and two WET Labs ac-9 spectrophotometers. The LISST instrument was found to capture the breakup response of flocs to turbulent energy, though the resulting particle size spectra appear to have underestimated the largest floc lengthscales in the flow while overestimating the abundance of primary particles. Floc breakup and the resulting shift towards smaller particles caused an increase in spectral slope of attenuation as measured by the ac-9 instruments. The Kolmogorov lengthscale was not found to have a limiting effect on floc size in these experiments. While the flocs were found to decrease in overall strength over the course of the two-month experimental time period, repeatable breakup responses to turbulence exposure were observed. Hydrodynamic conditions during floc formation were found to have a large influence on floc strength and breakup response. A non-constant strength exponent was observed for flocs formed with more energetic mixing. Increased turbulence from mixing during aggregation was found to increase floc fractal dimension and apparent density, resulting in a shift in the breakup relationships to higher turbulence dissipation rates. The results suggest that marine particle aggregation and vertical carbon transport concepts should include the turbulence energy responsible for aggregate formation and the resulting impact on floc strength, density, and the disruption potential.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0207809
JournalPloS one
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


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