One of the peculiar characteristics of viscous, laminar flows is that they are reversible. Squirt dye into glycerin, stir it one way, then the opposite direction, and the dye returns to its initial position. But this neat trick only works in simple geometries; in a more complex environment, like the pores between packed gravel, flows cannot make their way back to their initial state.
That’s the idea at the heart of this new study of mixing in porous media. Researchers took a bed of packed beads and pushed a slow, steady flow of dye into the bed. Then they steadily withdrew fluid to reverse the flow and observed how the dye they’d injected appeared at the surface of the bed (top image). If the flow were perfectly reversible, we’d expect the dye to return to its injection point. But instead the dye is spread chaotically across the surface, giving researchers a snapshot of the chaotic mixing taking place between beads. (Image and research credit: J. Heyman et al.; via APS Physics)