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Isopycnic means "of the same density." In particular, an isopycnic surface is a surface of constant density. This term is a bit more obscure than the similar terms isobaric or isothermal surfaces, which describe surfaces of constant pressure and constant temperature respectively. It is common in conversational use to hear isopycnic surfaces referred to simply as "iso-density" surfaces, which while strictly incorrect, is nonetheless abundantly more clear.
The term "isopycnic" is commonly encountered in the fluid dynamics of compressible fluids, such as in meteorology and geophysical fluid dynamics, astrophysics, or the fluid dynamics of explosions or high Mach number flows. It may also be applied to other situations where a continuous medium has smoothly-varying density, such as in the case of an inhomogeneous colloidal suspension. In general isopycnic surfaces will occur in fluids in hydrostatic equilibrium coinciding with equipotential surfaces formed by gravity.
Isopycnic surfaces occur in geology, especially in connection with cratons which are very old geologic formations at the core of the continents, little affected by tectonic events. These formations are often known as shields or platforms. These formations are, relative to other lithospheric formations, cooler and less dense but much more isopycnic.
Compare also with isochoric. Note that one may discuss isobaric surfaces or isobaric processes; likewise one may discuss isothermal surfaces or isothermal processes. However, the use of "isopycnic" is typically reserved for surfaces and not processes. In particular, unless there is a flux of mass into or out of a control volume, a process which occurs at a constant density also occurs at a constant volume and is called an isochoric process and not an isopycnic process.
The term "isopycnic" is also encountered in biophysical chemistry, usually in reference to a process of separating particles, subcellular organelles, or other substances on the basis of their density. Isopycnic centrifugation refers to a method wherein a density gradient is either pre-formed or forms during high speed centrifugation. After this gradient is formed particles move within the gradient to the position having a density matching their own (this is in fact an incorrect description of the exact physical process but does describe the result in a meaningful way). This technique is extremely powerful.
- Charles Petit (18 December 2010). "Continental Hearts – Science News". Science News. pp. 22–26. Retrieved 2011-01-08.
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