Mug Cooling: Visualising complexity with peanut butter

I hope you’ve enjoyed the last couple of articles (1, 2)  about mug cooling. I have enjoyed writing them, but I am having trouble stopping.

My problem in trying to finish this investigation is the sheer complexity of the physics involved in the cooling of beverages.

Complexity? Yes, mind-boggling complexity. In the liquid, the air, and the profoundly mysterious ‘boundary layer’ between them.

First there is the liquid.

When one looks at a cup of tea or coffee, its opacity hides the complexity of the flow patterns in the liquid.

But with different fluids, such as the mixture of Marmite™, Peanut Butter, and hot water shown in the movie at the top, the turgid flows become visible.

[ASIDE: Some might ask: “Michael, what made you think of mixing Marmite™, Peanut Butter, and hot water?”.  Sadly, the answer is confidential, but I urge readers: please: do try this at home, but please don’t blame me!]

These flows are driven by the convective instability of the liquid.

  • The hot liquid near the surface cools as its fast-moving molecules either evaporate or lose energy by colliding with the slower-moving air molecules.
  • As the liquid cools, its density increases until it begins to sink beneath the liquid layer below.
  • This lower layer is now lifted to the surface, cools, and then sinks in turn.
  • And so a circulating flow pattern can be established and sustained by a liquid cooling at a surface.

In the case of the  Marmite™  and Peanut Butter concoction in the movie above, matters are further complicated by oil from the peanut butter which appears to have formed a stable surface layer below which the convective flow takes place.

This roiling turmoil can also be measured quantitatively.

I repeated the cooling measurements from the previous articles, but this time I placed all four thermocouples close to the surface.

Thermocouples near the surface

Four thermocouples measuring the temperature close to the surface of hot water in an insulated mug.

Looking in detail at the data from just two of the thermocouples one can see apparently random heating and cooling events.

These temperature fluctuations are caused by rising and falling convecting liquid .

Slide 11

Then there is the air.

Analogous processes also occur in the air above the liquid. 

These are harder to visualise, but I have created a simulation of the process in the amazing (and free!) Energy2D application – more details at the end of this article.

Large Gif
Animated GIF made from selected frames of an Energy2D simulation of the  air cooling of a liquid in insulated mugs with a lid (left) and without (right).

In the simulationthe flow patterns in the air quickly develop a breathtaking fractal complexity that is completely familiar.

The simulation is not entirely realistic. It is only in two-dimensions, does not include the effects of evaporation, does not include convection in the ‘liquid’ (so it is more like a solid), and yet some how, when the data is exported, it looks qualitatively similar to that which I observed experimentally in a real 3-D mug!

Slide 10

Graph of data exported from the Energy 2D simulation showing the cooling of an insulated beverage cup with and without a lid.


Underlying the ‘simple’ beverage cooling curves are processes in both the liquid and the air which are at the limit of what can be realistically modelled.

And as we approach the interface between the liquid and the air and look in ever more detail, matters only get more complex.

At this apparently ‘static’ interface there are multiple dynamic processes:

  • The liquid is evaporating, cooling and convecting away from the surface.
  • Air molecules and liquid molecules are interacting strongly.
    • The air is dissolving in the liquid
    • The liquid is evaporating and re-condensing both as droplets in the air (steam) and back into the liquid.
  • The air is warming and convecting away from the surface.

And yet all we just notice is that our coffee is getting cold!

Energy 2D

Energy2D is a wonderful FREE application that carries out complex two-dimensional calculations based on real physics.

I have found it difficult to get exact numerical matches between simulations and real world situations, but the physics which the software simulates is deeply insightful.

I strongly recommend that you waste several hours playing with its example demonstrations.


One Response to “Mug Cooling: Visualising complexity with peanut butter”

  1. Mug Cooling: Salty fingers | Protons for Breakfast Blog Says:

    […] Making sense of science « Mug Cooling: Visualising complexity with peanut butter […]

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