Suppressing Instability

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The Rayleigh Taylor instability is a common fluid phenomenon in which the interface between fluids of differing densities becomes unstable. It’s what’s responsible for all those awesome pictures of milk in ice coffee. For many years, fluid dynamicists theorized that the instability might be inhibited by rotation, which tends to suppress velocity changes along the axis of rotation. But actually creating an experiment demonstrating the effect was extremely difficult because any attempts to set a denser fluid over a lighter one before rotating it would kick off the instability. Recently, however, researchers succeeded in creating an experimental demonstration, seen in the video above. They did so by using magnetism. The initial set-up consists of two fluids of similar densities – a heavier, diamagnetic fluid on the bottom and a lighter, paramagnetic fluid floating on top. The tank was then spun up until both fluids were rotating like a rigid body. Then, the entire set-up was lowered into a vertically-oriented magnetic field. The paramagnetic fluid on top was attracted by the field while the diamagnetic fluid on the bottom was repelled. The end result is that the magnetic field created the effect of the upper fluid being heavier, thereby initiating the Rayleigh-Taylor instability. As you can see in the video, rotation does slow down–but not prevent–the instability. But it took some very clever and careful experimental design to show!  (Video credit: K. Baldwin et al.)


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