Fuck Yeah Fluid Dynamics

Celebrating the physics of all that flows. Ask a question, submit a post idea or send an email. You can also follow FYFD on Twitter and Google+. FYFD is written by Nicole Sharp, PhD.

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Pyrocumulus clouds tower tall above a wildfire in these photos taken last week from an Oregon National Guard F-15C. Most cumulus clouds form when the sun-warmed surface heats air, causing it to rise and carry moisture upward where it condenses to form clouds. In pyrocumulus clouds, the driving heat is supplied by a forest fire or volcanic eruption. The hot, rising air carries smoke and soot particles upward, where they become nucleation sites for condensation. Pyrocumulus clouds can be especially turbulent, and the gusting winds they produce can exacerbate wildfires. In some cases, the clouds can even develop into a pyrocumulonimbus thunderstorm with rain and lightning.  (Photo credit: J. Haseltine; via NASA Earth Observatory)

Superhydrophobic surfaces repel water. Both naturally occurring and manmade materials with this property share a common feature: micro- or nanoscale structures on their surface. Lotus and lily leaves are coated with tiny hairs, and synthetic coatings or micro-manufactured surfaces like the one in the video above can be made in the lab. This nanoscale roughness traps air between the surface and the water, preventing adhesion to the surface and enabling the water-repelling behavior we observe at the human scale. Although effective, these nanoscale structures are also extremely delicate, which makes widespread application of superhydrophobic coatings and textures difficult. (Video credit: G. Azimi et al.)

What happens to a liquid in a cold vacuum? Does it boil or freeze? These animations of liquid nitrogen (LN2) in a vacuum chamber demonstrate the answer: first one, then the other! The top image shows an overview of the process. At standard conditions, liquid nitrogen has a boiling point of 77 Kelvin, about 200 degrees C below room temperature; as a result, LN2 boils at room temperature. As pressure is lowered in the vacuum chamber, LN2’s boiling point also decreases. In response, the boiling becomes more vigorous, as seen in the second row of images. This increased boiling hastens the evaporation of the nitrogen, causing the temperature of the remaining LN2 to drop, the same way sweat evaporating cools our bodies. When the temperature drops low enough, the nitrogen freezes, as seen in the third row of images. This freezing happens so quickly that the nitrogen molecules do not form a crystalline lattice. Instead they are an amorphous solid, like glass. As the residual heat of the metal surface warms the solid nitrogen, the molecules realign into a crystalline lattice, causing the snow-like flakes and transition seen in the last image. Water can also form an amorphous ice if frozen quickly enough. In fact, scientists suspect this to be the most common form of water ice in the interstellar medium. (GIF credit: scientificvisuals; original source: Chef Steps, video; h/t to freshphotons)

Paint seems to dance and leap when vibrated on a speaker. Propelled upward, the liquid stretches into thin sheets and thicker ligaments until surface tension can no longer hold the the fluid together and droplets erupt from the fountain. Often paints are shear-thinning, non-Newtonian fluids, meaning that their ability to resist deformation decreases as they are deformed. This behavior allows them to flow freely off a brush but then remain without running after application. In the context of vibration, though, shear-thinning properties cause the paint to jump and leap more readily. For more images, see photographer Linden Gledhill’s website. (Photo credit: L. Gledhill; submitted by pinfire)

Joint popping is one of those things some people revel in and others detest. What you may not have realized, though, is that fluid dynamics are responsible for the sound. Joints contain a non-Newtonian liquid called synovial fluid to lubricate them. When you manipulate the joint to stretch it, pressure in the fluid drops and gases dissolved in the synovial fluid are released, forming a cavitation bubble. The creation and collapse of this bubble are what cause the audible popping. (Video credit: SciShow)

Reader tvargo writes:

First off… love your blog! I know very little about physics, but love reading about it. Could you potentially explain what the little upturned ends of wings do? looking on wikipedia is see this: “There are several types of wingtip devices, and although they function in different manners, the intended effect is always to reduce the aircraft’s drag by partial recovery of the tip vortex energy.” huh?

Thanks! That’s a great question. Winglets are very common, especially on commercial airliners. To understand what they do, it’s helpful to first think about a winglet-less airplane wing. Each section of the wing produces lift. For a uniform, infinite wing, the lift produced at each spanwise location would be the same. In reality, though, wings are finite and wingtip vortices at their ends distort the flow. The vortices’ upward flow around the ends of the wing reduces the lift produced at the wing’s outermost sections, making the finite wing less efficient (though obviously more practical) than an infinite wing.

Adding a winglet modifies the end conditions, both by redirecting the wingtip vortices away from the underside of the wing and by reducing the strength of the vortex. Both actions cause the winglet-equipped wing to produce more lift near the outboard ends than a wing without winglets. 

But why, you might ask, does the Wikipedia explanation talk about reducing drag? Since a finite wing produces less lift than an infinite one, finite wings must be flown at a higher angle of attack to produce equivalent lift. Increasing the angle of attack also increases drag on the wing. (If you’ve ever stuck a tilted hand out a car window at speed, then you’re familiar with this effect.) Because the winglet recovers some of the lift that would otherwise be lost, it allows the wing to be flown at a lower angle of attack, thereby reducing the drag. Thus, overall, adding winglets improves a wing’s efficiency. (Photo credit: C. Castro)

We often think of raindrops as spherical or tear-shaped, but, in reality, a falling droplet’s shape can be much more complicated. Large drops are likely to break up into smaller droplets before reaching the ground. This process is shown in the collage above. The initially spherical drops on the left are exposed to a continuous horizontal jet of air, similar to the situation they would experience if falling at terminal velocity. The drops first flatten into a pancake, then billow into a shape called a bag. The bags consists of a thin liquid sheet with a thicker rim of fluid around the edge. Like a soap bubble, a bag’s surface sheet ruptures quickly, producing a spray of fine droplets as surface tension pulls the damaged sheet apart. The thicker rim survives slightly longer until the Plateau-Rayleigh instability breaks it into droplets as well. (Image credit: V. Kulkarni and P. Sojka)

Rotation can cause non-intuitive effects in fluid dynamical systems. UCLA Spinlab’s newest video tackles the problem using four demonstrations. The first two deal with droplets released in air, first in a non-rotating environment and then in a rotating one. As one would expect, in a non-rotating environment, droplets fall through the tank in a straight line. When rotating, though, the droplets follow a deflected, straight-line path due to centrifugal effects. This is the same as the way passengers in a car feel like they’re being thrown to the outside of a turn on a curvy road. When the experiment is repeated with a tank of water instead of air, the results are different. The densities of the creamer and water are much closer to one another, so the droplet falls much slower than before. The tank now rotates faster than time it takes the drop to fall. This smaller timescale means that the droplet experiences more acceleration from Coriolis forces than centrifugal forces in the rotating tank of water. Thus, instead of being thrown outward, the drop now forms a column aligned with the axis of rotation. (Video credit: UCLA Spinlab; submitted by Jon B.)

Undoubtedly one of the most mind-boggling instances of fluid dynamics I’ve learned about in writing FYFD is that of sonoluminescence - an effect in which light is produced from imploding cavitation bubbles. In a laboratory, the effect is usually initiated with acoustic waves. A bubble can be forced to oscillate and collapse periodically when forced by the sound. During the collapse, the vapor inside the bubble reaches temperatures of the order of thousands of Kelvin, and light is produced. What is far more wild, though, is that the effect occurs in nature as well. Both the pistol shrimp and the mantis shrimp produce the effect. As shown in the video above, the mantis shrimp swings its club-like arm with such speed that the local pressure drops below the vapor pressure, causing a cavitation bubble to form and sonoluminescence to occur. Some real Mortal Kombat finishing move s&#% there, indeed.  (Video credit: Z. Frank)

Spend an hour watching the clouds roll overhead and no two of them will be the same. The complexity and dynamic motion of turbulence make these flows fascinating, even mesmerizing, to watch. Humans are a pattern-seeking species. We like to seek order in apparent chaos, and this, perhaps, is what makes turbulence such a captivating subject for scientists and artists alike.

Nicole Sharp, “The Beautiful Unpredictability of Coffee, Clouds, and Fire”

Something a little different today. I have a guest post over at Nautilus about looking for patterns in turbulence. Go check it out!