Visualizing Vortices

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Flow visualization can be a valuable tool for understanding fluid dynamics. In this video, we see how it can help elucidate the mechanisms of flapping flight. By dyeing vortices from the leading edge in red rhodamine and vortices from the trailing edge in green fluorescein, it’s possible to distinguish their competing effects for wings of different size. The speed and efficiency of a flapping wing depends on the vortices it sheds–these provide its lift and thrust. On a short wing, the leading edge vortex is significant and spins in a counter-clockwise (positive) direction. When it reaches the trailing edge, it meets a vortex spinning clockwise (negative). The interference of the two vortices weakens the shed vortex, thereby slowing the wing. Lengthening the wing weakens the leading edge vortex, which reduces its interference at the trailing edge and makes the longer wings more efficient. (Video credit: T. Mitchel et al.; via @AlbanSauret)

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