The stability of an immiscible layer of fluid bounded by two other fluids of different viscosities and migrating through a porous medium is analysed, both theoretically and experimentally. Linear stability analyses for both one-dimensional and radial flows are presented, with particular emphasis upon the behaviour when one of the interfaces is highly stable and the other is unstable. For one-dimensional motion, it is found that owing to the unstable interface, the intermediate layer of fluid eventually breaks up into drops.
However, in the case of radial flow, both surface tension and the continuous thinning of the intermediate layer as it moves outward may stabilize the system. We investigate both of these stabilization mechanisms and quantify their effects in the relevant parameter space. When the outer interface is strongly unstable, there is a window of instability for an intermediate range of radial positions of the annulus. In this region, as the basic state evolves to larger radii, the linear stability theory predicts a cascade to higher wavenumbers. If the growth of the instability is sufficient that nonlinear effects become important, the annulus will break up into a number of drops corresponding to the dominant linear mode at the time of rupture.
In the laboratory, a Hele-Shaw cell was used to study these processes. New experiments show a cascade to higher-order modes and confirm quantitatively the prediction of drop formation. We also show experimentally that the radially spreading system is stabilized by surface tension at small radii and by the continual thinning of the annulus at large radii.