Basic (Fluid Mechanics)

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Typical aerodynamic teardrop shape, showing the pressure distribution as the thickness of the black line and showing the velocity in the boundary layer as the violet triangles. The green vortex generators prompt the transition to turbulent flow and prevent back-flow also called flow separation from the high pressure region in the back. The surface in front is as smooth as possible or even employs shark like skin, as any turbulence here will reduce the energy of the airflow. The Kammback also prevents back flow from the high pressure region in the back across the spoilers to the convergent part. Putting stuff inside out results in tubes; they also face the problem of flow separation in their divergent parts, so called diffusers. Cutting the shape into halves results in an aerofoil with the low pressure region on top leading to lift (force).

In physics, fluid dynamics is a sub-discipline of fluid mechanics that deals with fluid flow—the natural science of fluids (liquids and gases) in motion. It has several subdisciplines itself, including aerodynamics (the study of air and other gases in motion) and hydrodynamics (the study of liquids in motion). Fluid dynamics has a wide range of applications, including calculating forces and moments on aircraft, determining the mass flow rate of petroleum through pipelines, predicting weather patterns, understanding nebulae in interstellar space and reportedly modeling fission weapon detonation. Some of its principles are even used in traffic engineering, where traffic is treated as a continuous fluid.

Fluid dynamics offers a systematic structure that underlies these practical disciplines, that embraces empirical and semi-empirical laws derived from flow measurement and used to solve practical problems. The solution to a fluid dynamics problem typically involves calculating various properties of the fluid, such as velocity, pressure, density, and temperature, as functions of space and time.

Historically, hydrodynamics meant something different than it does today. Before the twentieth century, hydrodynamics was synonymous with fluid dynamics. This is still reflected in names of some fluid dynamics topics, like magnetohydrodynamics and hydrodynamic stability—both also applicable in, as well as being applied to, gases.(1)



The foundational axioms of fluid dynamics are the conservation laws, specifically, conservation of mass, conservation of linear momentum (also known as Newton's Second Law of Motion), and conservation of energy (also known as First Law of Thermodynamics). These are based on classical mechanics and are modified in quantum mechanics and general relativity. They are expressed using the Reynolds Transport Theorem.

In addition to the above, fluids are assumed to obey the continuum assumption. Fluids are composed of molecules that collide with one another and solid objects. However, the continuum assumption considers fluids to be continuous, rather than discrete. Consequently, properties such as density, pressure, temperature, and velocity are taken to be well-defined at infinitesimally small points, and are assumed to vary continuously from one point to another. The fact that the fluid is made up of discrete molecules is ignored.

For fluids which are sufficiently dense to be a continuum, do not contain ionized species, and have velocities small in relation to the speed of light, the momentum equations for Newtonian fluids are the Navier-Stokes equations, which is a non-linear set of differential equations that describes the flow of a fluid whose stress depends linearly on velocity gradients and pressure. The unsimplified equations do not have a general closed-form solution, so they are primarily of use in Computational Fluid Dynamics. The equations can be simplified in a number of ways, all of which make them easier to solve. Some of them allow appropriate fluid dynamics problems to be solved in closed form.

In addition to the mass, momentum, and energy conservation equations, a thermodynamical equation of state giving the pressure as a function of other thermodynamic variables for the fluid is required to completely specify the problem. An example of this would be the perfect gas equation of state:

p= \frac{\rho R_u T}{M}

where p is pressure, ρ is density, Ru is the gas constant, M is the molar mass and T is temperature.

Compressible vs incompressible flow

All fluids are compressible to some extent, that is changes in pressure or temperature will result in changes in density. However, in many situations the changes in pressure and temperature are sufficiently small that the changes in density are negligible. In this case the flow can be modeled as an incompressible flow. Otherwise the more general compressible flow equations must be used.

Mathematically, incompressibility is expressed by saying that the density ρ of a fluid parcel does not change as it moves in the flow field, i.e.,

\frac{\mathrm{D} \rho}{\mathrm{D}t} = 0 \, ,

where D / Dt is the substantial derivative, which is the sum of local and convective derivatives. This additional constraint simplifies the governing equations, especially in the case when the fluid has a uniform density.

For flow of gases, to determine whether to use compressible or incompressible fluid dynamics, the Mach number of the flow is to be evaluated. As a rough guide, compressible effects can be ignored at Mach numbers below approximately 0.3. For liquids, whether the incompressible assumption is valid depends on the fluid properties (specifically the critical pressure and temperature of the fluid) and the flow conditions (how close to the critical pressure the actual flow pressure becomes). Acoustic problems always require allowing compressibility, since sound waves are compression waves involving changes in pressure and density of the medium through which they propagate.

Viscous vs inviscid flow

Viscous problems are those in which fluid friction has significant effects on the fluid motion.

The Reynolds number, which is a ratio between inertial and viscous forces, can be used to evaluate whether viscous or inviscid equations are appropriate to the problem.

Stokes flow is flow at very low Reynolds numbers, Re ≪ 1, such that inertial forces can be neglected compared to viscous forces.

On the contrary, high Reynolds numbers indicate that the inertial forces are more significant than the viscous (friction) forces. Therefore, we may assume the flow to be an inviscid flow, an approximation in which we neglect viscosity completely, compared to inertial terms.

This idea can work fairly well when the Reynolds number is high. However, certain problems such as those involving solid boundaries, may require that the viscosity be included. Viscosity often cannot be neglected near solid boundaries because the no-slip condition can generate a thin region of large strain rate (known as Boundary layer) which enhances the effect of even a small amount of viscosity, and thus generating vorticity. Therefore, to calculate net forces on bodies (such as wings) we should use viscous flow equations. As illustrated by d'Alembert's paradox, a body in an inviscid fluid will experience no drag force. The standard equations of inviscid flow are the Euler equations. Another often used model, especially in computational fluid dynamics, is to use the Euler equations away from the body and the boundary layer equations, which incorporates viscosity, in a region close to the body.

The Euler equations can be integrated along a streamline to get Bernoulli's equation. When the flow is everywhere irrotational and inviscid, Bernoulli's equation can be used throughout the flow field. Such flows are called potential flows.

Steady vs unsteady flow

Hydrodynamics simulation of the Rayleigh–Taylor instability

When all the time derivatives of a flow field vanish, the flow is considered to be a steady flow. Steady-state flow refers to the condition where the fluid properties at a point in the system do not change over time. Otherwise, flow is called unsteady. Whether a particular flow is steady or unsteady, can depend on the chosen frame of reference. For instance, laminar flow over a sphere is steady in the frame of reference that is stationary with respect to the sphere. In a frame of reference that is stationary with respect to a background flow, the flow is unsteady.

Turbulent flows are unsteady by definition. A turbulent flow can, however, be statistically stationary. According to Pope:(3)

The random field U(x,t) is statistically stationary if all statistics are invariant under a shift in time.

This roughly means that all statistical properties are constant in time. Often, the mean field is the object of interest, and this is constant too in a statistically stationary flow.

Steady flows are often more tractable than otherwise similar unsteady flows. The governing equations of a steady problem have one dimension less (time) than the governing equations of the same problem without taking advantage of the steadiness of the flow field.

Laminar vs turbulent flow

Turbulence is flow characterized by recirculation, eddies, and apparent randomness. Flow in which turbulence is not exhibited is called laminar. It should be noted, however, that the presence of eddies or recirculation alone does not necessarily indicate turbulent flow—these phenomena may be present in laminar flow as well. Mathematically, turbulent flow is often represented via a Reynolds decomposition, in which the flow is broken down into the sum of an average component and a perturbation component.

It is believed that turbulent flows can be described well through the use of the Navier–Stokes equations. Direct numerical simulation (DNS), based on the Navier–Stokes equations, makes it possible to simulate turbulent flows at moderate Reynolds numbers. Restrictions depend on the power of the computer used and the efficiency of the solution algorithm. The results of DNS agree with the experimental data.

Most flows of interest have Reynolds numbers much too high for DNS to be a viable option(4), given the state of computational power for the next few decades. Any flight vehicle large enough to carry a human (L > 3 m), moving faster than 72 km/h (20 m/s) is well beyond the limit of DNS simulation (Re = 4 million). Transport aircraft wings (such as on an Airbus A300 or Boeing 747) have Reynolds numbers of 40 million (based on the wing chord). In order to solve these real-life flow problems, turbulence models will be a necessity for the foreseeable future. Reynolds-averaged Navier–Stokes equations (RANS) combined with turbulence modeling provides a model of the effects of the turbulent flow. Such a modeling mainly provides the additional momentum transfer by the Reynolds stresses, although the turbulence also enhances the heat and mass transfer. Another promising methodology is large eddy simulation (LES), especially in the guise of detached eddy simulation (DES)—which is a combination of RANS turbulence modeling and large eddy simulation.

Newtonian vs non-Newtonian fluids

Sir Isaac Newton showed how stress and the rate of strain are very close to linearly related for many familiar fluids, such as water and air. These Newtonian fluids are modeled by a coefficient called viscosity, which depends on the specific fluid.

However, some of the other materials, such as emulsions and slurries and some visco-elastic materials (e.g. blood, some polymers), have more complicated non-Newtonian stress-strain behaviours. These materials include sticky liquids such as latex, honey, and lubricants which are studied in the sub-discipline of rheology.

Subsonic vs transonic, supersonic and hypersonic flows

While many terrestrial flows (e.g. flow of water through a pipe) occur at low mach numbers, many flows of practical interest (e.g. in aerodynamics) occur at high fractions of the Mach Number M=1 or in excess of it (supersonic flows). New phenomena occur at these Mach number regimes (e.g. shock waves for supersonic flow, transonic instability in a regime of flows with M nearly equal to 1, non-equilibrium chemical behavior due to ionization in hypersonic flows) and it is necessary to treat each of these flow regimes separately.


  • (1) Eckert, Michael (2006). The Dawn of Fluid Dynamics: A Discipline Between Science and Technology. Wiley. p. ix. ISBN 3527405135.
  • (2) Shengtai Li, Hui Li "Parallel AMR Code for Compressible MHD or HD Equations" (Los Alamos National Laboratory) [1]
  • (3) See Pope (2000), page 75.
  • (4) See Pope (2000), page 344.

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