Physicists from the Utrecht University and the UW Faculty of Physics have observed – for the first time experimentally – the Brazil nut effect in a mixture of charged colloidal particles. The findings were published in “The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” (PNAS).

The phenomenon of large objects rising to the surface of a mixture of small objects, bearing the professional name of granular convection, is popularly referred to as “the Brazil nut effect” and occurs commonly in nature. It can also be observed by shaking, for example, a bucket of sand and pebbles.


This unusual effect contradicts the intuition that heavier objects should sink to the bottom due to gravity and inertia force. This is the case with the phenomenon of sedimentation, common in nature, a process involving the sinking of solid particles dispersed in a liquid, under the influence of gravity or inertia forces.


Brazil nut effect in charged colloids 

Until now, it was thought that an influx of external energy, such as shaking the bag, was necessary to create the Brazil nut effect. However, theoretical models being developed suggested that the phenomenon could occur spontaneously, without the supply of external energy. The theoretical calculations were confirmed experimentally for the first time by a group of experimental and theoretical physicists from the Utrecht University and the Faculty of Physics at the University of Warsaw. The results of the study appeared in a paper published in the journal “The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America” (PNAS).


“We have shown that the Brazil nut effect can take place in a mixture of charged colloidal particles driven solely by Brownian motions and repulsion of electric charges,” Dr Jeffrey Everts from the Faculty of Physics at the University of Warsaw emphasises. Everts carried out the theoretical calculations for the experiment under the direction of René van Roij of the Institute for Theoretical Physics of the Utrecht University,


Colloidal mixture

The researchers used charged polymethylmethacrylate particles with different diameters (large and small) to carry out the experiment. A low-polar solvent, cyclohexyl bromide, was used as a dispersing agent.


As the researchers point out, although in both granular (e.g. nut) and colloidal mixtures the “Brazil nut effect” occurs, the mechanisms for its formation are completely different. In case of a nut mixture, as a result of shaking, smaller nuts fill in the gaps created at the bottom, pushing the larger nuts to the top.  Meanwhile, the charged particles in the colloid make Brownian motion as a result of collisions with the surrounding solvent molecules. “Each particle is positively charged. Heavier but larger particles have a greater charge, so they repel each other more strongly, making them move upward more easily than smaller but lighter particles,” Dr Jeffrey Everts explains.


The discovery of the “Brazil nut effect” in mixtures of colloidal particles can be used in many fields from geology to soft matter physics. It can also find application in industry such as in the stability of paint and ink.