From aircraft to the Sun, turbulence as it has never been seen before

Scientists have for the first time created turbulent motion in a fluid of light, ushering in a new field of research that uses photonics to study turbulence with unprecedented precision, describing processes ranging from aircraft aerodynamics to arterial blood flow, from the study of the Earth's magnetic field to solar corona eruptions.

The findings are published in Nature Photonics by the Advanced Photonics Group of the National Research Council’s Institute of Nanotechnology in Lecce, Italy, in collaboration with theoretical groups from the Institute of Physics at the Polish Academy of Sciences and University College London.

"Although turbulent motion is governed by equations that are well known in physics, the difficulty of the problem lies in the nonlinearity of these equations with respect to fluid velocity and the wide range of spatial scales involved: these two elements make it difficult to simulate turbulent dynamics numerically, even using the very powerful computers available today," says Dario Ballarini of CNR-Nanotec.

"The novelty of our study lies in having investigated turbulence from a new point of view, studying the phenomenon in a new system, quantum light fluids. In order to create a quantum fluid of light, the coherence properties of light must be combined with the strong interactions typical of matter, and to do this we need to hybridize light particles (photons) with electrons."

In particular, the CNR researchers observed the inverse energy cascade, where large vortices form from smaller vortices and create large stable structures over time, instead of gradually dividing into smaller vortices down to microscopic spatial scales where energy is dissipated into heat.