Un-Mixing a Flow

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This video demonstrates one of my favorite effects: the reversibility of laminar flow. Intuition tells us that un-mixing two fluids is impossible, and, under most circumstances, that is true. But for very low Reynolds numbers, viscosity dominates the flow, and fluid particles will move due to only two effects: molecular diffusion and momentum diffusion. Molecular diffusion is an entirely random process, but it is also very slow. Momentum diffusion is the motion caused by the spinning inner cylinder dragging fluid with it. That motion, unlike most fluid motion, is exactly reversible, meaning that spinning the cylinder in reverse returns the dye to its original location (plus or minus the fuzziness caused by molecular diffusion).

Aside from being a neat demo, this illustrates one of the challenges faced by microscopic swimmers. In order to move through a viscous fluid, they must swim asymmetrically because exactly reversing their stroke will only move the fluid around them back to is original position. (Video credit: Univ. of New Mexico Physic and Astronomy)

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