There are currently two primary methods of wind-tunnel flow visualisation: Particle Image Velocimetry (PIV) and Laser Doppler Anemometry (LDA). Both techniques seed the airflow with tracer particles, and use lasers and optical detectors and cameras to provoke and record a pattern of scattered light. This poses a problem, in that the wheels, wings, and diffusers of interest to the aerodynamicist, are normally opaque to the passage of optical radiation. Hence, PIV and LDA experiments typically require the construction of transparent wings and aerodynamic appendages.
There is, however, a possible solution to this problem: Why not use radioactive isotopes to obtain quantitative flow data from wind-tunnel testing? One could inject a harmless radioactive tracer into the flow, such as one of those used in the medical imaging industry; technetium-99m-labelled DTPA (diethylene triamine pentaacetic acid) would be an obvious candidate here. One could then use gamma (ray) cameras to image the flow in a similar way that optical cameras are currently used in PIV and LDA.
There would, of course, be the need for some additional precautions. However, an isotope such as technetium-99 is considered sufficiently harmless to be injected into medical patients, and has a half-life of only 6 hours, so a wind-tunnel would not need to be decontaminated by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority!
In fact, taking a closer look reveals that there are already significant areas of shared technology between wind-tunnel flow visualisation and lung scintigraphy, the use of gamma cameras to record 2-dimensional images formed by the emission of gamma rays from inhaled radioisotopes:
“99mTc labelled aerosols, 0.5-3 [microns] in size, are used routinely in lung ventilation studies. Radiolabelled aerosols are produced by nebulizing 99mTc-DTPA (or other appropriate 99mTc-products) in commerically available nebulizers,” (p276, Fundamentals of Nuclear Pharmacy, 2010, Saha).
When such aerosols are inhaled for lung scintigraphy, droplet sizes must be small enough to permit diffusion deep into the lungs; specifically, diameters smaller than 2 microns are preferred. In the case of wind-tunnel flow visualisation, the tracer particles must follow the flow. Given that the ratio of the tracer particle density to the flow density is typically of the order 103 in gas flows, it is necessary to use tracer particles of diameter between 0.5 and 5 [microns], (p288, Springer Handbook of Experimental Fluid Mechanics, Tropea, Yarin and Foss, 2007). The method by which such tracer particles are injected into the airflow suggest close reciprocities with lung scintigraphy:
"By far the most common method of seeding gas flows is through liquid atomization. Of the many atomizer types available the common nebulizer used in inhalation devices is the most suitable...The droplet size depends primarily on the atomizing airflow rate and on the liquid used. Typical mean particle sizes range from 0.2 [microns] using DEHS...to 4-5 [microns] with water...For many applications, the common inhalation or medication nebulizer offers an economical solution and can be obtained through medical suppliers," (ibid., p293).
Thus, the medical and wind-tunnel industries already use the same nebulizing technology, and comparable droplet diameters. In particular, technetium-labelled DTPA has a comparable density, in solution, to the DEHS (di-ethyl-hexyl-sebacat) widely used for seeding airflows in PIV experiments.
One potential limiting factor, however, may be the current resolution of gamma-ray cameras. A gamma camera consists of a scintillation crystal, which converts gamma rays into optical-wavelength light, detected by photomultiplier tubes behind the crystal. However, despite a recent breakthrough which demonstrates that gamma rays can be focused, there is currently no equivalent of an optical lens. Instead, a collimator, consisting of an array of tiny pin-holes, is used. The collimator absorbs some of the radiation, limiting the sensitivity of a gamma camera, and also places a limit on the spatial resolution. Typical current resolution is 7-12mm at a distance of 10cm, (p96, Nuclear Medicine Instrumentation, Prekeges, 2009).
Despite such problems, the possibilities for development abound.