Schlieren Imaging – Seeing the Invisible
“Schlieren photography is a visual process that is used to photograph the flow of fluids of varying density. Invented by the German physicist August Toepler in 1864 to study supersonic motion, it is widely used in aeronautical engineering to photograph the flow of air around objects.
The classical implementation of an optical schlieren system uses light from a single collimated source shining on, or from behind, a target object. Variations in refractive index caused by density gradients in the fluid distort the collimated light beam. This distortion creates a spatial variation in the intensity of the light, which can be visualised directly with a shadowgraph system.
In classical schlieren photography, the collimated light is focused with a converging optical element (usually a lens or curved mirror), and a knife-edge is placed at the focal point, positioned to block about half the light. In flow of uniform density this will simply make the photograph half as bright. However, in flow with density variations the distorted beam focuses imperfectly, and parts which have been focused in an area covered by the knife-edge are blocked. The result is a set of lighter and darker patches corresponding to positive and negative fluid density gradients in the direction normal to the knife-edge. When a knife-edge is used, the system is generally referred to as a schlieren system, which measures the first derivative of density in the direction of the knife-edge. If a knife-edge is not used, the system is generally referred to as a shadowgraph system, which measures the second derivative of density.
If the fluid flow is uniform the image will be steady, but any turbulence will cause scintillation, the shimmering effect that can be seen on hot surfaces on a sunny day. To visualise instantaneous density profiles, a short duration flash (rather than continuous illumination) may be used.” – Wikipedia.