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Turbulence models may slash fuel use

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British engineer has helped to develop a method of understanding turbulence which could save billions in energy costs

A British engineer has helped to develop a method of understanding turbulence which could save billions in global energy costs. Southampton University’s Dr Ati Sharma and a US-based colleague have pioneered an approach that will help designers to create more efficient transport.

Turbulence – the chaotic movement of fluids seen in everything from stream water to swirling smoke – has been described as one of the last unsolved problems of classical physics. Devising a solution would reap huge benefits. Reducing the turbulence-induced drag on planes’ wings by 30% could save billions of pounds in fuel costs worldwide.

The method developed by Sharma and Professor Beverley McKeon from the California Institute of Technology makes it simpler for scientists to study the effects of wall turbulence – when a gas or liquid flows past solid surfaces at a reasonable rate.

Sharma said: “Although the equations that govern fluid flow were discovered in the early 1800s, nobody had figured out a way to predict recurring structure in wall turbulence directly from these equations. The new work describes how wall turbulence can be broken down into constituent blocks that can be simply pieced together, Lego-like, to approach and eventually get back to the full equations.”

When a few blocks, or sub-equations, are added together the results look like a full laboratory experiment but the calculations can be made on a laptop instead of a supercomputer. Engineers now have a template to visually and mathematically identify order from the swirling flows, and will be able to use the information to improve on previous models of turbulence.

McKeon described the ultimate application of the research which has been published online in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics.

She said: “Imagine being able to shape not just an aircraft wing but the characteristics of the turbulence in the flow over it to optimise aircraft performance. It opens the doors for entirely new capabilities in vehicle performance that may reduce the consumption of fuels.”
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