If you inject a less viscous fluid, like air, into a narrow gap between two glass plates filled with a more viscous fluid, you’ll get a finger-like instability known as the Saffman-Taylor instability. If you invert the situation – injecting something viscous like water into air – the water will simply expand radially; you’ll get no fingers. But that situation doesn’t hold if there are wettable particles in the air-filled gap. Inject water into a particle-strewn air gap and you get a pattern like the one above. In this case, as the water expands, it collects particles on the meniscus between it and the air. Once the concentration of particles on the meniscus is too high for more particles to fit there, the flow starts to branch into fingers. This creates a greater surface area for interface so that more particles can get swept up as the water expands. (Image and research credit: I. Bihi et al., source)
This polygonal pattern is known as the rose-window instability. It’s formed between two electrodes – one a needle-like point, the other flat – separated by a layer of oil. The pointed electrode’s voltage ionizes the air nearby, creating a stream of ions that travel toward the flat electrode below. Oil is a poor conductor, however, so the ions build up on its surface until they’re concentrated enough to form a dimple that lets them reach the lower electrode. At higher voltages, the electrical forces driving the ions and the gravitational force trying to flatten the oil reach a balance in the form of the polygonal cell pattern seen above. Smaller cells form near the needle electrode, where the electrical field is strongest and the temperature is highest, as revealed in thermal and schlieren imaging (lower images) that shows a warm stream of gas impacting there.
Blue paint in alcohol forms an array of polygonal convection cells. We’re accustomed to associating convection with temperature differences; patterns like the one above are seen in hot cooking oil, cocoa, and even on Pluto. In all of those cases, temperature differences are a defining feature, but they are not the fundamental driver of the fluid behavior. The most important factors – both in those cases and the present one – are density and surface tension variations. Changing temperature affects both of these factors, which is why its so often seen in Benard-Marangoni convection.
For the paint-in-alcohol, density and surface tension differences are inherent to the two fluids. Because alcohol is volatile and evaporates quickly, its concentration is constantly changing, which in turn changes the local surface tension. Areas of higher surface tension pull on those of lower surface tension; this draws fluid from the center of each cell toward the perimeter. At the same time, alcohol evaporating at the surface changes the density of the fluid. As it loses alcohol and becomes denser, it sinks at the edges of the cell. Below the surface, it will absorb more alcohol, become lighter, and eventually rise at the cell center, continuing the convective process. (Image credit: Beauty of Science, source)
Jupiter’s atmosphere is fascinatingly complex and stunningly beautiful. This close-up from the Juno spacecraft shows a region called STB Spectre, located in Jupiter’s South Temperate Belt. The bluish area to the right is a long-lived storm that’s bordering on very different atmospheric conditions to the left. Shear from these storms moving past one another creates many of the curling waves we see in the image. These are examples of the Kelvin-Helmholtz instability, which generates ocean waves here on Earth, creates spectacular clouds in our atmosphere, and is even responsible for waves in galaxy clusters. Check out some of the other amazing images Juno has sent back of our solar system’s largest planet. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/R. Tkachenko; via Gizmodo)
Sixty Symbols has a great new video explaining the laboratory set-up for demoing a Kelvin-Helmholtz instability. You can see a close-up from the demo above. Here the pink liquid is fresh water and the blue is slightly denser salt water. When the tank holding them is tipped, the lighter fresh water flows upward while the salt water flows down. This creates a big velocity gradient and lots of shear at the interface between them. The situation is unstable, meaning that any slight waviness that forms between the two layers will grow (exponentially, in this case). Note that for several long seconds, it seems like nothing is happening. That’s when any perturbations in the system are too small for us to see. But because the instability causes those perturbations to grow at an exponential rate, we see the interface go from a slight waviness to a complete mess in only a couple of seconds. The Kelvin-Helmholtz instability is incredibly common in nature, appearing in clouds, ocean waves, other planets’ atmospheres, and even in galaxy clusters! (Image and video credit: Sixty Symbols)
Here you see a millimeter-sized droplet suspended in a fluid that is more electrically conductive than it. When exposed to a high DC electric field, the suspended drop begins to flatten. A thin rim of fluid extends from the drop’s midplane in an instability called “equatorial streaming”. As seen in the close-up animation, the rim breaks off the droplet into rings, which are themselves broken into micrometer-sized droplets thanks to surface tension. The result is that the original droplet is torn into a cloud of droplets a factor of a thousand smaller. This technique could be great for generating emulsions of immiscible liquids–think vinaigrette dressing but with less shaking! (Image credit: Q. Brosseau and P. Vlahovska, source)
Diving can generate some remarkable splashes. Here researchers explore the splashes from a wedge-shaped impactor. At high speeds, they found that the splash sheet pushed out by the wedge curls back on itself and accelerates sharply downward to “slap” the water surface (top). Studying the air flow around the splash sheet reveals some of the dynamics driving the slap (bottom). The splash sheet quickly develops a kink that grows as the sheet expands. This creates a constriction that accelerates flow on the underside of the sheet. That higher velocity flow means a low pressure inside the constriction, which pulls the thin sheet down rapidly, making it slap the surface. For more, check out the full video. (Image and research credit: T. Xiao et al., source)
Liquid sheets break down in a process known as atomization. Above are top and side views of a liquid sheet created by two identical liquid jets impacting head-on. The jets themselves are off-screen to the left. Their collision generates a thin sheet of liquid that flows from left to right. In the center of the images, the sheet has begun to flap and undulate, shedding large droplets from its edges as it does. At the far end of the sheet, much finer droplets are sprayed out from the center as the sheet collapses completely. This is an example of an instability in a fluid. Initially, any disturbance in the liquid sheet is extremely tiny, but circumstances in the flow are such that those disturbances gather energy and grow larger, creating the large undulations. Those undulations are unstable as well and kick off a fresh set of disturbances that grow until the flow completely breaks down. (Image credit: N. Bremond et al., pdf)
Under the right atmospheric conditions, clouds can form in a distinctive but short-lived breaking wave pattern known as a Kelvin-Helmholtz cloud. The animation above shows the formation and breakdown of such a cloud over the course of 9 minutes early one morning in Colorado’s Front Range region. Kelvin-Helmholtz instabilities occur when fluid layers with different velocities and/or densities move past one another. Friction between the two layers moving past creates shear and causes the curling rolls seen above.
In the background, you can also see a foehn wall cloud low to the horizon. This type of cloud forms downwind of the Rocky Mountains after warm, moist Chinook winds are forced up over the mountains, cool, and then condense and sink in the mountains’ wake. (Image credit and submission: J. Straccia, more info)
In their latest video, the Slow Mo Guys team up with the Blue Man Group for some high-speed hijinks, some of which make for great fluidsy visuals. Their first experiment involves dropping a bowling ball on gelatin. The gelatin goes through some massive deformation but comes out remarkably unscathed. Gelatin is what is known as a colloid and essentially consists of water trapped in a matrix of protein molecules. This gives it both solid and liquid-like properties, which means that the energy the bowling ball’s impact imparts can be dissipated through liquid-like waves ricocheting through the gelatin before the elasticity of the protein matrix allows it to reform in its original shape.
The video ends with buckets of paint flung at Dan. The paints form beautiful splash sheets that expand and thin until surface tension can no longer hold them together. Holes form in the sheet and eat outward until the paint forms thin ligaments and catenaries. As those continue to stretch, surface tension drives the paint to break into droplets, though that break-up may be countered to some extent by any viscoelastic properties of the paint. (Image and video credit: The Slow Mo Guys + Blue Man Group, source)