Research

Spinning Off-Axis

Green dye marks a developing vortex in a draining tub.

To make a vortex in the laboratory, researchers typically set a tank on a rotating platform and allow the water to drain out a hole in the center of the tank. In that case, a vortex forms over the drain (like in your bathtub!) and remains centered over the hole. In nature, though, vortices rarely follow such a simple path.

In this experiment, researchers moved the drainage hole so that it is not aligned with the tank’s axis of rotation. Although the vortex forms over the drain (marked by a yellow dot in the lower image), it quickly moves away, following a roughly circular path around the axis until it comes to a stop. Green dye marks fluid from the tank’s bottom boundary layer, which eventually gets entrained up into the vortex. (Image and research credit: R. Munro and M. Foster; via Physics Today)

Timelapse animation showing the development of the vortex. The yellow dot marks the location of the drain.
Timelapse animation showing the development of the vortex. The yellow dot marks the location of the drain.

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