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Creation of an isolated turbulent blob fed by vortex rings


Turbulence is hard to control. Many experimental methods have been developed to generate this elusive state of matter, leading to fundamental insights into its statistical and structural features as well as its onset. In all cases, however, the material boundaries of the experimental apparatus pose a challenge for understanding what the turbulence has been fed and how it would freely evolve. Here we build and control a confined state of turbulence using elemental building blocks—vortex rings. We create a stationary and isolated blob of turbulence in a quiescent environment, initiated and sustained solely by vortex rings. We assemble a full picture of its three-dimensional structure, onset, energy budget and tunability. The incoming vortex rings can be endowed with conserved quantities, such as helicity, which can then be controllably transferred to the turbulent state. Our one-eddy-at-a-time approach opens the possibility for sculpting turbulent flows much as a state of matter, placing the turbulent blob at the targeted position, localizing it and ultimately harnessing it.

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Fig. 1: Generation of turbulence using vortex rings and their resistance to confinement.
Fig. 2: Two phases emerge as eight vortex rings repeatedly collide: coherent reconnections and a confined state of turbulence.
Fig. 3: Turbulent flow statistics and energy balance in a turbulent blob.
Fig. 4: Vring/(Rringf) governs the transition from coherent reconnections to turbulence.
Fig. 5: Repeated collision of helical rings transfers helicity to turbulence in a controlled fashion.

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Data availability

The data contained in the plots within this paper and other findings of this study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Code availability

The codes to handle 2D PIV and 3D PTV data, to compute energy spectra, structure functions and dissipation from velocity fields, and to visualize flows are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.


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We thank N. Goldenfeld, G. Voth, F. Coletti and P. A. Davidson for insightful discussions and feedback and F. Coletti and L. Baker for discussion on the performance of PIV. We thank L. Biferale and F. Bonaccorso for sharing the simulation data of helical turbulence with us via the Smart-TURB database, as well as the Turbulence Research Group at Johns Hopkins University for access to the Johns Hopkins Turbulence Database. We also acknowledge Y. Ganan and R. Morton for help in performing the Gross-Pitavskii equation simulations. This work was supported by the Army Research Office through grant nos. W911NF-17-S-0002, W911NF-18-1-0046 and W911NF-20-1-0117, and by the Brown Science Foundation. We also acknowledge LaVision Inc. for support with PIV and PTV, and SideFX and Object Research Systems for granting software licences (for Houdini and Dragonfly, respectively) to visualize flows. The Chicago MRSEC is gratefully acknowledged for access to its shared experimental facilities (U.S. NSF grant DMR2011854). For access to computational resources, we thank the University of Chicago’s Research Computing Center and the University of Chicago’s GPU-based high-performance computing system (NSF DMR-1828629).

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Authors and Affiliations



W.T.M.I. initiated and supervised research. S.P. designed chamber actuation and performed proof of concept experiments. N.P.M. contributed to chamber design and contributed analytical tools. T.M. constructed the apparatus and the imaging system, performed all experiments reported in this paper and wrote the code to handle, process and visualize flow data. T.M. and W.T.M.I. designed experiments, analysed data, performed modelling and wrote the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to William T. M. Irvine.

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Nature Physics thanks Van Luc Nguyen and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–49 and Tables I–IV.

Supplementary Video 1

This video displays coherent vortex reconnections that result in the generation of six outgoing secondary rings when eight vortex rings collide. The bubbles, generated by hydrolysis, indicate the location of the cores of the primary and the secondary rings. The video plays ten times slower than real time.

Supplementary Video 2

This video displays the irregular motion of the bubbles when the vortex rings are fired at 5 Hz, forming a turbulent blob. The first set of collisions resembles a single shot (Supplementary Video 1), yet the bubbles at the centre move more irregularly after a few cycles of vortex ring injection.

Supplementary Video 3

This video demonstrates the geometrical rule of vortex ring collisions when they are initialized on the plane of the platonic solids: the configuration of the ejecting, secondary rings is dual to the configuration of the primary rings.

Supplementary Video 4

The pathlines show that a single-shot collision of eight vortex rings results in the formation of six secondary rings, consistent with the GPE simulation (Supplementary Video 3). The trajectories are coloured by the vortex rings of origins. Notice that each secondary vortex ring consists of four colours, reflecting its four ‘parent’ vortex rings.

Supplementary Video 5

When a turbulent blob forms, the pathlines of particles that are transported by vortex rings become highly irregular due to turbulence within the blob. The ejecting pattern becomes more uniform than the case of coherent vortex reconnections. The colours are assigned by the vortex rings of origins. White trajectories are found in the turbulent blob, and are of unknown origins.

Supplementary Video 6

This visualization of a turbulent blob shows the formation of a steady, isolated region with considerably higher energy than its surroundings. Here, all detected pathlines are shown with opacity weighted by the speed. The slow particles (purple) are dimmed more than the fast (yellow) ones.

Supplementary Video 7

This video shows that the fluctuations dominate inside a turbulent blob (the blue cloud), whereas the time-averaged (mean) flow (the yellow cloud) is set up by the injected vortex rings outside the turbulent blob. The volume of the measured field is 120 mm × 102 mm × 100 mm with a voxel pitch of 2.2 mm.

Supplementary Video 8

These Mollweide plots show the normal component of each mass and enstrophy flux at the two phases. In the phase of coherent vortex reconnections (top row), the mass and enstrophy fluxes indicate focused ejection. When a turbulent blob is formed, the ejection is more uniform, and less enstrophy leaves the central region on average (bottom row). Here, a spherical surface with radius r ≈ 1.25Rblob = 30 mm is considered. The left column represents the normal mass flux Jm through the surface, and the right column is the normal enstrophy flux. The measurements correspond to (Vring/Rring, f) = (21 Hz, 0.2 and 4 Hz).

Supplementary Video 9

This video shows the energy and enstrophy fields of vortex ring collisions on the central slice, obtained by 2D PIV. The vortex reconnections generate secondary rings, four of which are visible in this video. Time averaging these fields provides equivalent pictures as Supplementary Fig. 2b,c.

Supplementary Video 10

This video shows the energy and enstrophy fields of vortex ring collisions in the state of a turbulent blob on the central slice, obtained by 2D PIV. Contrary to the single-shot collision (Supplementary Video 9), energy and enstrophy remain relatively steady within a spherical blob, and they leave the central region only intermittently. Time averaging these fields provides equivalent figures as Supplementary Fig. 2f,g.

Supplementary Video 11

This video shows the Q criterion field during single-shot collisions. Weak, outgoing vortices are generated upon the collisions. The video plays three times slower than real time.

Supplementary Video 12

This video shows the Q criterion field when vortex rings are fired repeatedly. Outgoing vortices interact with incoming ones. Small vortices are constantly generated in the region where collision takes place. After 10–15 cycles, it reaches a steady state. The video plays three times slower than real time.

Supplementary Video 13

This video shows the spatio-temporal structure of a local dissipation rate as well as its spatial average as a function of time. Regions with a high dissipation rate are concentrated along threads with thickness of approximately ten times the Kolmogorov length scale η. Two white boxes indicate the other turbulence length scales: the transverse Taylor microscale λg and the integral scale L. The local dissipation rate is calculated from a rate-of-strain tensor. One PIV pixel corresponds to a half of the interrogation window in the PIV algorithm.

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Matsuzawa, T., Mitchell, N.P., Perrard, S. et al. Creation of an isolated turbulent blob fed by vortex rings. Nat. Phys. 19, 1193–1200 (2023).

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