Flow images of two heat guns. The vertical gun is fixed at focus plane (z = 0 cm) and the horizontal gun is traversed along the optical axis in front of and behind the focus plane. (Image: NASA)

Researchers at NASA’s Langley Research Center have developed a simple, compact, easy-to-use projection focusing schlieren imaging system optical assembly that leverages a light source, a single physical grid element, and polarization optics to enable hi-res flow visualization. The assembly can simply be mounted in front of a camera to enable focusing schlieren imaging capability. It was designed to drastically reduce the complexity and time required to align a focusing schlieren imaging experiment.

The assembly is attached to a commercial-off-the-shelf camera. It directs light from the light source through a condenser lens and linear polarizer toward a polarizing beam-splitter where the linear, vertically-polarized component of light is reflected onto the optical axis of the instrument. The light passes through a Ronchi ruling grid, a polarizing prism, and a quarter-wave plate prior to projection from the assembly as right-circularly polarized light.

The grid-patterned light (having passed through the Ronchi grid) is directed past the density object onto a retroreflective background that serves as the source grid. Upon reflection off the retroreflective background, the polarization state of light is mirrored. It passes the density object a second time and is then reimaged by the system.

Upon encountering the polarizing prism the second time, the light is refracted resulting in a slight offset. This refracted light passes through the Ronchi ruling grid, now serving as the cutoff grid, for a second time before being imaged by the camera.

Both small- and large-scale experimental set ups have been evaluated and shown to be capable of fields-of-view of 10 and 300 millimeters respectively. Observed depths of field were found to be comparable to existing systems. Light sources, polarizing prisms, retroreflective materials and lenses can be customized to suit a particular experiment. For example, with a high-speed camera and laser light source, the system has collected flow images at a rate of 1MHz.

Conventional focusing schlieren imaging systems and projection-based analogs require cumbersome grid alignment and peripheral resources to function (e.g., separate source and cutoff grids, projectors, specialized software). NASA’s system leverages a single physical grid as both the source and cutoff grid, so the system is self-aligned, compact, does not require specialized software, and costs less than other projection-based alternatives.

Some of its key applications include flow visualization, aerodynamics, and fluid dynamics R&D in aerospace; visualizing or monitoring heat transfer from sensitive electronic devices; contamination control and diagnostic imaging of air flows or fluid flows in medical; visualizing air flow from ventilation systems as well as gas flow or thermal flow imaging for additive manufacturing or semiconductor manufacturing processes.

NASA is actively seeking licensees to commercialize this technology. Please contact NASA’s Licensing Concierge at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call at 202-358-7432 to initiate licensing discussions. For more information, visit here .