Reader Andrew asks:
I’ve noticed you’ve posted a bunch of flow visualization/wind tunnel content. I’m just curious where how useful information is obtained from these. Is it just observation? Or are there instruments that are usually used in conjunction with these techniques to provide data?
Great question, Andrew! The answer can vary based on the technique and application. In some cases, flow visualization is used for purely qualitative observation, but in others it can provide more quantifiable data. For example, the water tunnel flow visualization of Google’s heliostat array gave very qualitative data about flow around a given configuration but allowed quick evaluation of many configurations. Flow visualization can also help identify key features for additional study like vortices in a wake. This identification of structure can be so useful that even in computational fluid dynamics, where researchers have all possible information about pressure, temperature, and velocity in a flow field, flow visualization is regularly used to identify underlying structures.
Some flow visualization methods can also give very specific information. Oil-flow visualization gives a snapshot of shear stress at the surface of an object, letting an engineer identify at a glance areas of laminar and turbulent flow as well as regions with vortices and streaks. Naphthalene flow visualization and infrared thermography are both great for identifying the location of laminar-turbulent transition and can do so across the span of an object, which is much easier than trying to traverse a probe across the entire object. And some forms of flow visualization allow for extraction of velocity field information, as in particle image velocimetry. In this technique, tiny particles seed the flow and carefully timed image pairs are taken and correlated to determine the flow field velocity based on the changes in particle positions between images.
Like every measurement, flow visualization methods have their strengths and limitations. But for many applications, flow visualization provides much more than just pretty pictures and thus remains an important tool in any fluid dynamicist’s arsenal!