Colloids on the Space Station

Under normal conditions on earth, the separation between liquids and gases is usually a bit mundane: the level of water in a drinking glass simply falls as the liquid evaporates into a gas, since the liquid is denser. Two liquids of different densities, such as the oil and vinegar of salad dressing, are similarly unexciting; the oil just floats to the top after a period of time. However, when the effects of gravity are taken away, such as in the environment of the International Space Station (ISS), this separation creates far more interesting and complex patterns. We have created mixtures of colloidal particles and polymers that separate into liquid and gas phases over the course of several days on ISS, and using time-lapse photography we are able to watch the changes in these samples and the patterns they form. Specifically, we examine a type of phase separation called spinodal decomposition near the critical point, a set of specific conditions where the properties of liquids and gases are the same. To do these experiments, we work closely with astronauts in orbit aboard the ISS.


  1. Thomas E. Kodger, Peter J. Lu, G. Reid Wiseman, David A. Weitz, “Stable, Fluorescent Polymethylmethacrylate Particles for the Long-Term Observation of Slow Colloidal Dynamics” Langmuir. 33, 6382–6389 (2017). [pdf]
  2. Peter J. Lu et al., “Orders-of-magnitude performance increases in GPU-accelerated correlation of images from the International Space Station” Journal of Real-Time Image Processing (2009). [pdf]