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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Posts tagged "microgravity"

Moving fluids around in microgravity can be a challenge. On Earth we experience buoyancy and other gravitational effects that dominate how fluids move. In space, on the other hand, the only options are to move fluids mechanically with pumps or fans or to use capillary action. Even on earth, adhesive forces between a liquid and its solid container can draw fluids in narrow tubes upward against the force of gravity. In microgravity, this capillary flow can be even more effective. But the best way to study and understand this flow regime is to do so in space. The Capillary Channel Flow experiment and similar studies have allowed astronauts on the space station and researchers back on Earth to explore the effects of capillary action on microgravity fluid transport. The results will be used to improve propulsion systems, heat exchangers, and life support systems used in space. (Photo credits: NASA, M. Dreyer et al., and A. Agrawala; submitted by jshoer)

On Earth, it’s easy for the effects of surface tension and capillary action to get masked by gravity’s effects. This makes microgravity experiments, like those performed with drop towers or onboard the ISS, excellent proving grounds for exploring fluid dynamics unhindered by gravity. The video above looks at how colliding jets of liquid water behave in microgravity. At low flow rates, opposed jets form droplets that bounce off one another. Increasing the flow rate first causes the droplets to coalesce and then makes the jets themselves coalesce. Similar effects are seen in obliquely positioned jets. Perhaps the most interesting clip, though, is at the end. It shows two jets separated by a very small angle. Under Earth gravity, the jets bounce off one another before breaking up. (The jets are likely separated by a thin film of air that gets entrained along the water surface.) In microgravity, though, the jets display much greater waviness and break down much quicker. This seems to indicate a significant gravitational effect to the Plateau-Rayleigh instability that governs the jet’s breakup into droplets. (Video credit: F. Sunol and R. Gonzalez-Cinca)

The microgravity environment of space is an excellent place to investigate fluid properties. In particular, surface tension and capillary action appear more dramatic in space because gravitational effects are not around to overwhelm them. In this animation, astronaut Don Petit injects a jet of air into a large sphere of water. Some of the water’s reaction is similar to what occurs on Earth when a drop falls into a pool; the jet of air creates a cavity in the water, which quickly inverts into an outward-moving jet of water. In this case, the jet is energetic enough to eject a large droplet. Meanwhile, the momentum, or inertia, from the air jet and subsequent ejection causes a series of waves to jostle the water sphere back and forth. Surface tension is strong enough to keep the water sphere intact, and eventually surface tension and viscosity inside the sphere will damp out the oscillations. You can see the video in full here. (Image credit: Don Petit/Science off the Sphere)

In the movie "Gravity" Sandra Bullock’s character battles a fire aboard the International Space Station. Combustion is a huge concern in space habitats. Microgravity fires are challenging to detect and fight because they behave very differently in the absence of buoyancy. On Earth, buoyancy makes hot air rise from a flame while cooler air is pulled in near the base. This feeds fresh oxygen to the teardrop-shaped flame. In space, there is no buoyancy and flames are spherical. They also burn at lower temperatures and lower oxygen concentrations—so low, in fact, that the oxygen depletion necessary to extinguish a fire is lower than what humans require to survive.

No buoyancy makes it harder for fires to spread, but it also makes them harder to detect since smoke doesn’t rise toward a detector on the ceiling. Instead, fire detectors aboard the Space Station are housed in the ventilation system that moves air through the modules constantly. In the event of a fire, astronauts use a three-step fire suppression system. First, they shut off the ventilation system to delay the fire’s spread. Then they shut off power to the affected unit, and, finally, they use fire extinguishers on the flames. The Russian module is equipped with a foam extinguisher and the others use CO2 units. (Image credit: Warner Brothers)

A microgravity environment can cause some nonintuitive behaviors in fluids. Many of the effects that dominate fluid dynamics in space are masked by gravity’s effects here on Earth. As a result, it can be very difficult to predict how seemingly straightforward technologies like heat exchangers, refrigeration units, and fuel tanks will behave. The photos above show two bubble jets—created by injecting a liquid-gas mixture into a liquid—colliding in microgravity. This particular experiment was conducted in a drop tower rather than on-orbit, which produced some side effects like the large bubbles seen in the images. These were created by the coalescence of smaller bubbles that congregated near the top of the tank shortly before the experiment attained free-fall. (Photo credit: F. Sunol and R. Gonzalez-Cinca)

What happens to a wet washcloth when wrung out in space? Astronaut Chris Hadfield answers this question from students with a demonstration. Without gravity to pull the water downward, surface tension effects dominate and the wrung cloth forms a tube of water around it. Surface tension and capillary action draw the fluid up and onto Hadfield’s hands as long as he holds the cloth. After he lets go, we see that the water remaining around the cloth soaks back in (again due to capillary action) and the wet, twisted washcloth simply floats without releasing water or relaxing its shape. While pretty much what I would have expected, this was a very cool result to see! (Video credit: C. Hadfield/CSA; submitted by Bobby E)

In a gravitational field, the pressure in a fluid increases with depth. You can consider it due to the weight of the fluid above. Outside of scuba diving or hiking at altitude, this effect is not one typically given much thought. But what effect can it have at a smaller scale? This video shows the collapse and rebound of three initially spherical cavitation bubbles inside a liquid. Each bubble is created in a different gravitational field - one in microgravity, one in normal gravity, and one at 1.8x Earth gravity. The bubble in microgravity remains axisymmetric and spherical, but the two bubbles recorded in gravitational fields develop jets during rebound. Even at a scale of only a few millimeters, gravity causes an imbalance in pressure across the bubble that creates asymmetry. (Video credit: D. Obreschkow et al.)

Any phenomenon in fluid dynamics typically involves the interaction and competition of many different forces. Sometimes these forces are of very different magnitudes, and it can be difficult to determine their effects. This video focuses on capillary force, which is responsible for a liquid’s ability to climb up the walls of its container, creating a meniscus and allowing plants and trees to passively draw water up from their roots. Being intermolecular in nature, capillary forces can be quite slight in comparison to gravitational forces, and thus it’s beneficial to study them in the absence of gravity.

In the 1950s, drop tower experiments simulating microgravity studied the capillary-driven motion of fluids up a glass tube that was partially submerged in a pool of fluid. Without gravity acting against it, capillary action would draw the fluid up to the top of the glass tube, but no droplets would be ejected. In the current research, a nozzle has been added to the tubes, which accelerates the capillary flow. In this case, both in terrestrial labs and aboard the International Space Station, the momentum of the flow is sufficient to invert the meniscus from concave to convex, allowing a jet of fluid out of the tube. At this point, surface tension instabilities take over, breaking the fluid into droplets. (Video credit: A. Wollman et al.)

The Rayleigh-Taylor instability can form at the interface between two liquids of different density under the influence of gravity, but a similar instability can occur in the absence of gravity. The image sequence above shows the Richtmyer-Meshkov instability, which occurs between two liquids of differing densities (regardless of their orientation) when impulsively accelerated. In this case, the experiment was conducted in a drop tower to simulate microgravity with the apparatus dropped on a spring to provide the impulse. As the instability grows, asymmetries appear.  Nonlinear dynamics will amplify these distortions, eventually leading to turbulent breakdown. (Photo credit: C. Niederhaus/NASA Glenn, J. Jacobs/University of Arizona)

When a water balloon pops in microgravity, waves propagate from the initial point of contact and the final point of contact (where the balloon skin peels away).  As these waves come inward toward one another, the water is compressed from its original potato-like shape into a pancake-like one. In most cases, surface tension will provide a damping force on this oscillatory motion, eventually making the water into a sphere. On Earth, in contrast, a water balloon seems to hold its shape after popping.  This is because the effect of gravity on the water is much larger than the effect of the propagating waves. This is one reason that it is useful to have a laboratory in space! Without a microgravity environment, it is much harder to study and observe secondary and tertiary-order forces on a physical event. (Video credit: Don Pettit, Science Off The Sphere)