Experimental observations and linear stability calculations are presented for the stability of torsional flows of viscoelastic fluids between two parallel coaxial disks, one of which is held stationary while the other is rotated at a constant angular velocity. Beyond a critical value of the dimensionless rotation rate, or Deborah number, the purely circumferential, viscometric base flow becomes unstable with respect to a nonaxisymmetric, time-dependent motion consisting of spiral vortices which travel radially outwards across the disks. Video-imaging measurements in two highly elastic polyisobutylene solutions are used to determine the radial wavelength, wavespeed and azimuthal structure of the spiral disturbance. The spatial characteristics of this purely elastic instability scale with the rotation rate and axial separation between the disks; however, the observed spiral structure of the secondary motion is a sensitive function of the fluid rheology and the aspect ratio of the finite disks.

Very near the centre of the disk the flow remains stable at all rotation rates, and the unsteady secondary motion is only observed in an annular region beyond a critical radius, denoted R*1. The spiral vortices initially increase in intensity as they propagate radially outwards across the disk; however, at larger radii they are damped and the spiral structure disappears beyond a second critical radius, R*2. This restabilization of the base viscometric flow is described quantitatively by considering a viscoelastic constitutive equation that captures the nonlinear rheology of the polymeric test fluids in steady shearing flows. A radially localized, linear stability analysis of torsional motions between infinite parallel coaxial disks for this model predicts an instability to non-axisymmetric disturbances for a finite range of radii, which depends on the Deborah number and on the rheological parameters in the model. The most dangerous instability mode varies with the Deborah number; however, at low rotation rates the steady viscometric flow is stable to all localized disturbances, at any radial position.

Experimental values for the wavespeed, wavelength and azimuthal structure of this flow instability are described well by the analysis; however, the critical radii calculated for growth of infinitesimal disturbances are smaller than the values obtained from experimental observations of secondary motions. Calculation of the time rate of change in the additional viscous energy created or dissipated by the disturbance shows that the mechanism of instability for both axisymmetric and non-axisymmetric perturbations is the same, and arises from a coupling between the kinematics of the steady curvilinear base flow and the polymeric stresses in the disturbance flow. For finitely extensible dumb-bells, the magnitude of this coupling is reduced and an additional dissipative contribution to the mechanical energy balance arises, so that the disturbance is damped at large radial positions where the mean shear rate is large.

Hysteresis experiments demonstrate that the instability is subcritical in the rotation rate, and, at long times, the initially well-defined spiral flow develops into a more complex three-dimensional aperiodic motion. Experimental observations indicate that this nonlinear evolution proceeds via a rapid splitting of the spiral vortices into vortices of approximately half the initial radial wavelength, and ultimately results in a state consisting of both inwardly and outwardly travelling spiral vortices with a range of radial wavenumbers.