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An optical method of rendering fluid flow patterns visible by using index-of-refraction differences in the flow. The method relies on the fact that rays of light bend toward regions of higher refractive index while passing through a transparent material. The fluid is usually illuminated by a parallel beam of light. The illustration depicts the method as it might be applied to a fluid sample undergoing thermal convection between two parallel plates, with the lower plate being kept warmer than the upper one. As illustrated, the rays bend toward the cooler down-flowing regions, where the refractive index is higher, and away from the warmer up-flowing ones. After they have passed through the fluid layer, the rays tend to focus above the cooler regions and defocus above the warmer regions. If an image of the light beam is recorded not too far from the sample, brighter areas of the image will lie above regions of down flow, where the rays have been concentrated, and darker areas will lie above regions of up flow. Because the light passes completely through the sample, the bending effect for each ray is averaged over the sample thickness. See Convection (heat), Refraction of waves
In convection experiments the refractive index varies because of thermal expansion of the fluid, but the method is not restricted regarding the mechanism responsible for disturbing the refractive index. Thus the same method may be used to visualize denser and less dense regions in a gas flowing in a wind tunnel, including Mach waves and shock waves, where the denser regions have a higher-than-average refractive index. See Shock wave, Supersonic flow
Images are usually recorded by means of a charge-coupled-device (CCD) camera, digitized, and stored in a computer. Such a digitized image consists of an array of numbers, each number being proportional to the brightness at a particular point in the image. The image points (pixels) form a closely spaced rectangular grid. A reference image may be taken in the absence of any fluid flow, and the reference image may be divided point by point into images taken with the fluid moving.