Breaking Up Turbulence

Under most circumstances, we think about flows changing from ordered and laminar to random and turbulent. But it’s actually possible for disordered flows to become laminar again. This is what we see happening in the clip above. Upstream, the flow in this pipe is turbulent (left). Then four rotors are used to perturb the flow (center). This disrupts the turbulence and causes the flow to become laminar again downstream (right). To understand how this works, we have to talk about one of the fundamental concepts in turbulence: the energy cascade.

Turbulent flows are known for their large range of length scales. Think about a volcanic plume, for example. Some of the turbulent motions in the plume may be a hundred meters across, but there are a continuous range of smaller scales as well, all the way down to a centimeter or less in size. In a turbulent flow, energy starts at the largest scales and flows further and further down until it reaches scales small enough that viscosity can extinguish them.

That should offer a hint as to what’s happening here. The rotors are perturbing the flow, yes, but they’re also breaking the larger turbulent scales down into smaller ones. The smaller the largest lengthscales of the flow are, the more quickly their energy will decay to the smallest lengthscales where viscosity can damp them out. This is what we see here. Once the turbulent energy is concentrated at the smallest scales, viscosity damps them out and the flow returns to laminar. Check out the full video below for a cool sequence where the camera moves alongside the pipe so you can watch the turbulence fading as it moves downstream. (Image and video credit: J. Kühnen et al.)

ETA: As it turns out, there’s more going on here than I’d originally thought. Simulations show that breaking up length scales is not the primary cause of relaminarization in this case. Instead, the rotors are modifying the velocity profile across the pipe in such a way that it tends to cause the turbulence to die out. The full paper is now out in Nature Physics and on arXiv.

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