The dynamics of the vortex structures appearing in an oscillatory boundary layer (Stokes boundary layer), when the flow departs from the laminar regime, is investigated by means of flow visualizations and a quantitative analysis of the velocity and vorticity fields. The data are obtained by means of direct numerical simulations of the Navier–Stokes and continuity equations. The wall is flat but characterized by small imperfections. The analysis is aimed at identifying points in common and differences between wall turbulence in unsteady flows and the well-investigated turbulence structure in the steady case. As in Jimenez & Moin (1991), the goal is to isolate the basic flow unit and to study its morphology and dynamics. Therefore, the computational domain is kept as small as possible.
The elementary process which maintains turbulence in oscillatory boundary layers is found to be similar to that of steady flows. Indeed, when turbulence is generated, a sequence of events similar to those observed in steady boundary layers is observed. However, these events do not occur randomly in time but with a repetition time scale which is about half the period of fluid oscillations. At the end of the accelerating phases of the cycle, low-speed streaks appear close to the wall. During the early part of the decelerating phases the strength of the low-speed streaks grows. Then the streaks twist, oscillate and eventually break, originating small-scale vortices. Far from the wall, the analysis of the vorticity field has revealed the existence of a sequence of streamwise vortices of alternating circulation pumping low-speed fluid far from the wall as suggested by Sendstad & Moin (1992) for steady flows. The vortex structures observed far from the wall disappear when too small a computational domain is used, even though turbulence is self-sustaining. The present results suggest that the streak instability mechanism is the dominant mechanism generating and maintaining turbulence; no evidence of the well-known parent vortex structures spawning offspring vortices is found. Although wall imperfections are necessary to trigger transition to turbulence, the characteristics of the coherent vortex structures, for example the spacing of the low-speed streaks, are found to be independent of wall imperfections.
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