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In fluid dynamics, turbulence or turbulent flow is fluid motion characterized by chaotic changes in pressure and flow velocity. It is in contrast to a laminar flow, which occurs when a fluid flows in parallel layers, with no disruption between those layers.[1]

Turbulence is commonly observed in everyday phenomena such as surf, fast flowing rivers, billowing storm clouds, or smoke from a chimney, and most fluid flows occurring in nature or created in engineering applications are turbulent.[2][3]:2 Turbulence is caused by excessive kinetic energy in parts of a fluid flow, which overcomes the damping effect of the fluid's viscosity. For this reason turbulence is commonly realized in low viscosity fluids. In general terms, in turbulent flow, unsteady vortices appear of many sizes which interact with each other, consequently drag due to friction effects increases. This increases the energy needed to pump fluid through a pipe.

The onset of turbulence can be predicted by the dimensionless Reynolds number, the ratio of kinetic energy to viscous damping in a fluid flow. However, turbulence has long resisted detailed physical analysis, and the interactions within turbulence create a very complex phenomenon. Richard Feynman has described turbulence as the most important unsolved problem in classical physics.[4]

Examples of turbulence

Laminar and turbulent water flow over the hull of a submarine. As the relative velocity of the water increases turbulence occurs.
Turbulence in the tip vortex from an airplane wing passing through coloured smoke
  • Smoke rising from a cigarette. For the first few centimeters, the smoke is laminar. The smoke plume becomes turbulent as its Reynolds number increases with increases in flow velocity and characteristic lengthscale.
  • Flow over a golf ball. (This can be best understood by considering the golf ball to be stationary, with air flowing over it.) If the golf ball were smooth, the surf, fast flowing rivers, billowing storm clouds, or smoke from a chimney, and most fluid flows occurring in nature or created in engineering applications are turbulent.[2][3]:2 Turbulence is caused by excessive kinetic energy in parts of a fluid flow, which overcomes the damping effect of the fluid's viscosity. For this reason turbulence is commonly realized in low viscosity fluids. In general terms, in turbulent flow, unsteady vortices appear of many sizes which interact with each other, consequently drag due to friction effects increases. This increases the energy needed to pump fluid through a pipe.

    The onset of turbulence can be predicted by the dimensionless Reynolds number, the ratio of kinetic energy to viscous damping in a fluid flow. However, turbulence has long resisted detailed physical analysis, and the interactions within turbulence create a very complex phenomenon. Richard Feynman has described turbulence as the most important unsolved problem in classical physics.[4]

    Turbulence is characterized by the following features:

    Irregularity
    Turbulent flows are always highly irregular. For this reason, turbulence problems are normally treated statistically rather than deterministically. Turbulent flow is chaotic. However, not all chaotic flows are turbulent.
    Diffusivity
    The readily available supply of energy in turbulent flows tends to accelerate the homogenization (mixing) of fluid mixtures. The characteristic which is responsible for the enhanced mixing and increased rates of mass, momentum and energy transports in a flow is called "diffusivity".[9]

    Turbulent diffusion is usually described by a turbulent diffusion coefficient. This turbulent diffusion coefficient is defined in a phenomenological sense, by analogy with the molecular diffusivities, but it does not have a true physical meaning, being dependent on the flow conditions, and not a property of the fluid itself. In addition, the turbulent diffusivity concept assumes a constitutive relation between a turbulent flux and the gradient of a mean variable similar to the relation between flux and gradient that exists for molecular transport. In the best case, this assumption is only an approximation. Nevertheless, the turbulent diffusivity is the simplest approach for quantitative analysis of turbulent flows, and many models have been postulated to calculate it. For instance, in large bodies of water like oceans this coefficient can be found using Richardson's four-third power law and is governed by the random walk principle. In rivers and large ocean currents, the diffusion coefficient is given by variations of Elder's formula.

    Rotationality
    Turbulent flows have non-zero vorticity and are characterized by a strong three-dimensional vortex generation mechanism known as vortex stretching. In fluid dynamics, they are essentially vortices subjected to stretching associated with a corresponding increase of the component of vorticity in the stretching direction—due to the conservation of angular momentum. On the other hand, vortex stretching is the core mechanism on which the turbulence energy cascade relies to establish and maintain identifiable structure function.[10] In general, the stretching mechanism implies thinning of the vortices in the direction perpendicular to the stretching direction due to volume conservation of fluid elements. As a result, the radial length scale of the vortices decreases and the larger flow structures break down into smaller structures. The process continues until the small scale structures are small enough that their kinetic energy can be transformed by the fluid's molecular viscosity into heat. Turbulent flow is always rotational and three dimensional.[10] For example, atmospheric cyclones are rotational but their substantially two-dimensional shapes do not allow vortex generation and so are not turbulent. On the other hand, oceanic flows are dispersive but essentially non rotational and therefore are not turbulent.[10]
    Dissipation
    To sustain turbulent flow, a persistent source of energy supply is required because turbulence dissipates rapidly as the kinetic energy is converted into internal energy by viscous shear stress. Turbulence causes the formation of eddies of many different length scales. Most of the kinetic energy of the turbulent motion is contained in the large-scale structures. The energy "cascades" from these large-scale structures to smaller scale structures by an inertial and essentially inviscid mechanism. This process continues, creating smaller and smaller structures which produces a hierarchy of eddies. Eventually this process creates structures that are small enough that molecular diffusion becomes important and viscous dissipation of energy finally takes place. The scale at which this happens is the Kolmogorov length scale.

    Via this energy cascade, turbulent flow can be realized as a superposition of a spectrum of flow velocity fluctuations and eddies upon a mean flow. The eddies are loosely defined as coherent patterns of flow velocity, vorticity and pressure. Turbulent flows may be viewed as made of an entire hierarchy of eddies over a wide range of length scales and the hierarchy can be described by the energy spectrum that measures the energy in flow velocity fluctuations for each length scale (wavenumber). The scales in the energy cascade are generally uncontrollable and highly non-symmetric. Nevertheless, based on these length scales these eddies can be divided into three categories.

    Integral time scale

    The integral time scale for a Lagrangian flow can be defined as:

    where u′ is the velocity fluctuation, and is the time lag between measurements.[11]

    Integral length scales
    Large eddies obtain energy from the mean flow and also from each other. Thus, these are the energy production eddies which contain most of the energy. They have the large flow velocity fluctuation and are low in frequency. Integral scales are highly anisotropic and are defined in terms of the normalized two-point flow velocity correlations. The maximum length of these scales is constrained by the characteristic length of the apparatus. For example, the largest integral length scale of pipe flow is equal to the pipe diameter. In the case of atmospheric turbulence, this length can reach up to the order of several hundreds kilometers.: The integral length scale can be defined as
    diffusion coefficient. This turbulent diffusion coefficient is defined in a phenomenological sense, by analogy with the molecular diffusivities, but it does not have a true physical meaning, being dependent on the flow conditions, and not a property of the fluid itself. In addition, the turbulent diffusivity concept assumes a constitutive relation between a turbulent flux and the gradient of a mean variable similar to the relation between flux and gradient that exists for molecular transport. In the best case, this assumption is only an approximation. Nevertheless, the turbulent diffusivity is the simplest approach for quantitative analysis of turbulent flows, and many models have been postulated to calculate it. For instance, in large bodies of water like oceans this coefficient can be found using Richardson's four-third power law and is governed by the random walk principle. In rivers and large ocean currents, the diffusion coefficient is given by variations of Elder's formula.

    Rotationality
    Turbulent flows have non-zero vorticity and are characterized by a strong three-dimensional vortex generation mechanism known as vortex stretching. In fluid dynamics, they are essentially vortices subjected to stretching associated with a corresponding increase of the component of vorticity in the stretching direction—due to the conservation of angular momentum. On the other hand, vortex stretching is the core mechanism on which the turbulence energy cascade relies to establish and maintain

    Via this energy cascade, turbulent flow can be realized as a superposition of a spectrum of flow velocity fluctuations and eddies upon a mean flow. The eddies are loosely defined as coherent patterns of flow velocity, vorticity and pressure. Turbulent flows may be viewed as made of an entire hierarchy of eddies over a wide range of length scales and the hierarchy can be described by the energy spectrum that measures the energy in flow velocity fluctuations for each length scale (wavenumber). The scales in the energy cascade are generally uncontrollable and highly non-symmetric. Nevertheless, based on these length scales these eddies can be divided into three categories.

    Integral time scale

    The integral time scale for a Lagrangian flow can be defined as:

    where u′ is the velocity fluctuation, and

    where u′ is the velocity fluctuation, and is the time lag between measurements.[11]

    Integral length scales
    Large eddies obtain energy from the mean flow and also from each other. Thus, these are the energy production eddies which contain most of the energy. They have the large flow velocity fluctuation and are low in frequency. Integral scales are highly anisotropic and are defined in terms of the normalized two-point flow velocity correlations. The maximum length of these scales is constrained by the characteristic length of the apparatus. For example, the largest integral length scale of pipe flow is equal to the pipe diameter. In the case of atmospheric turbulence, this length can reach up to the order of several hundreds kilometers.: The integral length scale can be defined as