The concept of a minimal flow unit (MFU) for the study of the basic physics of turbulent flows is introduced. The MFU is an initial vorticity configuration that consists of a few simple well-defined large-scale vortex structures. The form and position of these structures are chosen so that their interaction produces turbulence capturing many of the essential characteristics of isotropic homogeneous turbulence produced from random-phase initial conditions or that produced by continual random-phase forcing. The advantage of using the MFU is that the evolution of the vortex structures can be followed more clearly and the relationship between the evolving vortex structures and the various ranges in the energy spectrum can be more clearly defined. The addition of passive scalar fields to the MFU permits an investigation of passive scalar mixing that is relevant to the study of combustion. With a particular choice of the MFU, one that produces a trend to a finite-time singularity in the vorticity field, it is demonstrated that passive scalar distributed in the original large-scale vortices will develop intense gradients in the region where the vorticity is tending toward a singularity. In viscous flow, the evolution of the MFU clearly shows how the volume of the regions where originally well-separated passive scalars come into contact increases with increasing Reynolds number.

Dynamical arguments based on the structure of the Euler equations suggest the possibility of rapid amplification of vorticity in which the vorticity and the rate of strain grow proportionately. During such growth, the vorticity is expected to amplify as a (t(s)-t)(-1) power-law in time. This behavior is difficult to demonstrate numerically, in part, because initial transients tend to obscure it. Lamb dipoles are used here to construct the initial vorticity. This helps to avoid these transients and results in a flow exhibiting the expected power-law vorticity amplification for a period of time. The spatial region where the vorticity growth rate is maximal is investigated in detail using a decomposition of the vorticity along the principal axes of the rate-of-strain tensor. It is demonstrated that the vorticity and strain rate in one direction in this decomposition are proportional during the period of rapid vorticity growth. These findings suggest that, during this period, the Euler equations can be reduced to a one-dimensional model equation for vorticity in the rate-of-strain coordinate system. (C) 2007 American Institute of Physics.