Nature is full of remarkable patterns and moments of symmetry. This image shows the wake behind two rotating cylinders. Half of the cylinders are visible at the far left. The flow moves left to right. The cylinders are rotating at the same rate but in opposite directions, clockwise for the cylinder on top and counter-clockwise for the bottom one. At this speed relative to the freestream, there is a beautiful symmetry to the vortices in the wake, but the researchers found that even a slight deviation from this condition quickly destroyed the pattern. The flow is visualized here by introducing tiny hydrogen bubbles via electrolysis. The bubbles are small enough that their buoyancy has no appreciable effect. (Image credit: S. Kumar and B. Gonzalez)
Turbulence is not the only way to mix fluids. Even a steady, laminar flow can be an effective mixer if geometry lends a hand. Above, two dyes,
fluorescein (green) and rhodamine (red), are injected into a porous flow through packed spheres. The flow runs from bottom to top in both images. Seeing the flow in such a crowded geometry is challenging. Here researchers used spheres with an index of refraction that matches water – that helps them avoid refraction that would prevent them from looking through spheres to the flow on the other side. They also lit a narrow plane of the flow using a laser sheet to isolate it. Together, this allowed the researchers to track the mixing of the two initially separate streaks of dye as they randomly mix in the spaces between spheres. (Image and research credit: M. Kree and E. Villermaux)
Looking at convective cells, it’s easy to think that they are still and unmoving. But when you add particles, their inner flow becomes obvious. Warm, light fluid moves up through the center of each cell, skims along the surface, and then sinks at the edges of the cell after losing its heat at the cooling surface. Below, the fluid moves back toward the cell center, getting warmer as it’s heated by the lower surface. Once it reaches the middle of the cell, it’s light enough to rise up and start the process again. Convective cells like these are typical in cooking – watch for them forming in your miso soup or hot chocolate – but they can also be found on the sun and even in situations without heating! (Image credit: G. Kelemen, source)
One of the great challenges in visualizing fluid flows is the freedom of movement. A fluid particle – meaning some tiny little bit of fluid we want to follow – is generally free to move in any direction and even change its shape (but not mass). This makes tracking all of those changes difficult, and it’s part of why there are so many different techniques for flow visualization. The technique an experimenter uses depends on the information they hope to get.
Often a researcher may want to know about fluid velocity in two or more directions, which can require multiple camera angles and more than one laser sheet illuminating the flow. An alternative to such a set-up is shown above. The injected fluid – known as a rheoscopic fluid – contains microscopic reflective particles, in this case mica, that are asymmetric in shape. Imagine a tiny rod, for example. By illuminating the rod from different directions with different colors of light, you can determine the particle’s orientation based on the color it reflects. Since the orientation of the particle depends on the surrounding flow, you can infer how the flow moves. (Image credit and submission: J. C. Straccia; research link: V. Bezuglyy et al.)
Sunlight reflecting off the Earth can reveal a remarkably rich picture of our planet’s activity. The silver-gray areas seen in this satellite image are sunglint, where lots of light is reflected back to space. Sunglint occurs in regions with very few waves; more waves – like in the bluer areas – mean more directions in which light can be scattered. The reason for these rough and smooth waters is atmospheric: the prevailing summer winds blow across the Aegean from the north. In open water, that wind drives up the waves, but rocky islands disrupt the flow, leaving “wind shadows” on their southern, leeward sides where the waves are smaller. (Image credit: J. Schmaltz; via NASA Earth Observatory)