Reader gorbax asks:
I’ve been wondering for a while, actually, how do we know when the method of flow visualization doesn’t actually alter the flow of a fluid itself?
This is a great question and one that fluid dynamicists have to deal with all the time. Ideally, we’d love to measure everything we want from a flow at all points at all times without doing anything to affect it. In reality, however, that just doesn’t happen. Some measurement techniques are less intrusive than others, but just about everything risks having some effect. This raises two questions: 1) How small can we make that effect? and 2) Do we even care if we’re affecting the flow?
With regards to the first, the onus is typically on the experimentalist to show that whatever visualization technique he/she uses is not significantly affecting the flow. For something like particle image velocimetry, which requires seeding the flow with particles, this means selecting particles that follow the flow rather than changing it and considering carefully how and where to seed the flow such that any added vorticity from the injection does not alter the flow significantly. Checking for this can be done many ways, for example with comparisons to other measurement techniques (with and without seeding) or by comparing to simulation.
The second question–do we care?–is also a significant consideration. Because the purpose of flow visualization is often to get a qualitative feel for the flow field rather than quantitative information, it is often not a significant concern if there is some slight effect from the visualization technique. This can often be the case with smoke-wire and dye visualizations where we just want to see what’s going on.
Finally, there are some instances of flow visualization which are completely unobtrusive to the flow. Schlieren photography and infrared thermography are two examples. Both are optical techniques that act from a distance and take advantage of extant flow properties to make certain features visible. The real key is knowing what technique(s) will work for the flow you have and will give you the information you want. After that, it’s all about proper and thorough execution. (Photo credits: N. Vandenberge et al., T. Omer, M. Canals, P. Danehy et al., A. Wilkens et al., W. Saric et al.)