Research overview

Complex dynamics of fluids

Fluid flows in the environment or in industrial applications are almost always characterised by some form of complexity. Frequently it is this complexity that makes the flow an interesting topic of research. Below some examples are sketched of such flows and flow phenomena which form research topics carried out in the various JMBC groups. The first form of complex dynamics which comes to mind is turbulence, in contrast to a laminar flow. Here complexity appears in the form of strong non-linearity. Due to its chaotic behaviour turbulence can be considered as the archetype of a complex flow, and – being far from solved – turbulence will remain a strong focal point of research in the coming period. Turbulence research traditionally addresses the following questions:

  • what are the physical processes and interactions governing turbulence?
  • how can they be quantified and described mathematically?
  • how to predict turbulence and turbulent flow for particular configurations?
  • how to control and manipulate turbulence?

Research in this field in particular focusus on laminar-to-turbulent and reverse transition, effects of thermal buoyancy, unsteadiness, compressibility and rotation, and on the interaction with chemical reactions. The role of turbulence in energy conversion processes and equipment is regarded as an intriguing field of applications. Complexity may also appear in the form of a combined flow of various phases. When these phases are immiscible, phenomena such as free surface flows occur. These may appear in the form of various wave phenomena, for instance on an unobstructed water surface, but also in a confined geometry of a pipe.

Another type of such flow of immiscible phases is when one of the phases is distributed in the form of small particles, bubbles or droplets in the other continuous phase. Various combinations of phases may be selected and each has its own particular problems. This class of flows, generally denoted as ‘dispersed multi-phase flow’, forms a strong focal point of research within the JMBC. The combination of phases that are miscible leads to other interesting problems such as mixing, and – depending on the fluids that take part in the mixing – chemical reactions or combustion.

Finally, complexity of the flow can also appear through its boundary conditions. For instance the flow geometry can strongly influence the flow characteristics by means of straining, shearing and distortion. An example is the wake behind a body in a shearing or straining flow.

Furthermore, the exact formulation of boundary conditions can have a consequence for the type of flow characteristics that appear. An example is the free convection above a flat surface with a variable conductivity. Geometry constraints on the flow are also dominant when considering a flow in 2D versus 3D. An example is the quite different characteristics of 2D turbulence versus 3D turbulence.

The tools to carry out this research are primarily numerical and experimental. The numerical techniques used to compute flow phenomena are direct and large eddy numerical simulation, turbulence modelling and computational fluid dynamics. Also particle-based methods, such as the Lattice-Boltzmann technique, play an increasingly important role.

The experimental techniques used nowadays are mostly based on various forms of laser diagnostics (e.g. like PIV and PTV for flow measurements and CARS, LIF and Cavity Ring-Down Spectroscopy for temperatures and concentrations). Experiments, simulations and analytical theories in the field of fluid flow analysis complement each other – perhaps more than any other branch of physics. Future research will inevitably make use and take advantage of combined techniques and their complementing roles. Both the research topics themselves and the research techniques to carry out these investigations, form the basis of a strong collaboration within the JMBC.

Complex structures of fluids

Research in this Theme deals with complex structures of flow, formed in the presence of particles, drops, or bubbles, i.e., two- or even multiphase flow. Two-phase flow is of paramount importance in contemporary science and technology. One can readily cite a multitude of examples: the production and transport of oil (where bubbles are purposely injected to help lift thick heavy oil to the surface, or arise due to the release of dissolved gases), energy generation (where boiling is the key process in producing the steam to drive turbines), the chemical industry (where gas-liquid reactors rely on bubbles to increase the contact area between the phases), the oceans (where breaking-wave generated bubbles are important sinks for atmospheric CO2), sedimentation (where sinking sand particles determine the morphology of coastal regions), food-industry, and many others.

The challenge in single-phase flow is to understand the complicated dynamics as governed by the Navier-Stokes equation. In two-phase flow, even the underlying dynamical equations are often not known. For example, it is still not well understood why bubbles repel each other when they are close to each other. But even when the microscopic interactions are known, it is often not clear how the macroscopic structure evolves from this microscopic interaction and the response to external forces.

In many cases instabilities are involved in the macroscopic structure formation process. Very complex self-organising patterns can evolve out of these instabilities. An important example is cluster formation in sedimenting particles and coherent structures in bubble columns and fluidised beds.

Related topics are flow-controlled nucleation and droplet growth processes in high-pressure natural gas, which have important technical applications in the natural gas industry. Different JMBC groups are involved in the design of new types of condensate separators and in the numerical description of swirling supersonic two-phase flows, while a dedicated facility has been developed in order to investigate these condensation processes experimentally in a well-defined way.

How to theoretically describe such a complex system? Two types of approaches have been described in literature: In the first type of approach, the particles/bubbles/drops are treated essentially as points, while no attempt is made to simulate their detailed response to the liquid dynamics.

The advantage of this approach is that many particles/bubbles/drops can be treated, but the price to be paid is a lot of ad-hoc modelling. Fluid dynamical simulations in which the particles/bubbles/drops are modelled through averaged equations also belong to this first type of approach. In the second type of approach the detailed interactions of the particles/bubbles/drops with the flow is simulated, paying the price that – at present – the surrounding flow can not really be turbulent and that only “a few” objects can be treated, in particular, when the interfaces are allowed to deform, i.e., for free boundary problems (drops and bubbles).

One of the main objectives for the research in two-phase flow must be to bridge the gap between these two types of approaches and to carry out a detailed investigation of the interaction between one or a few particles/bubbles/ drops and a nontrivial flow field. Another objective must be to better understand the macroscopic structure formation process out of the microscopic interactions, and thus the instabilities in two-phase flow. It is evident that these objectives can only be achieved through a joint experimental, theoretical, and numerical approach.

On the experimental side, the challenge has always been to monitor and document as much information on the dynamics of the flow field as possible. Through the huge advances in both digital imaging techniques and information technology (see also Research Theme 1), the field is now flourishing, and the research on two-phase flow will strongly benefit from this. The same is to be expected from the advances with numerical techniques (see Research Theme 3), as brute force numerics will not be sufficient to address the problem of structure formation in two-phase flow. New algorithms and techniques are required and moving toward parallel computing is essential.

Mathematical and computational methods for fluid flow analysis

Advanced mathematical and computational techniques have become indispensable instruments for the description and understanding of complicated flow phenomena. This approach to fluid mechanics has evolved into a full-fledged counterpart to the experimental approach and provides new insight in complex flow physics, in for instance turbulence, combustion, multi-phase and rheological flows. The use of computational flow models is supported with analytical techniques, which provide deeper insight in canonical flow problems, and strongly interacts with advanced experimental techniques, which are capable of measuring and visualizing complex three-dimensional unsteady flow fields. These techniques require advanced post-processing of the flow field data to understand the flow dynamics and have developed into a research subject in itself. Here tools from non-linear dynamical systems theory can be useful, as well as the decomposition of flow data through POD and wavelet analysis.

The rapid increase in computational power has significantly stimulated the use of computational techniques in flow analysis, but the development of better algorithms has been the most important source for improved numerical techniques for flow analysis.

Many flows are, however, simply too complex for computational techniques and flow modelling remains an essential issue. Compromises have to be found between the inaccuracies in flow modelling and computational constraints. In areas such as turbulent flow simulation much progress has been made through refined modelling via Large-Eddy Simulation (LES) and Direct Numerical Simulation (DNS). There is also an interest for stochastic methods, such as the use of the Langevin equation for the velocity. In the other areas the same trends have become feasible, e.g. PDF modelling in combustion and Brownian Dynamics in rheology.

It can be foreseen that the improvements in numerical algorithms and the growing computational power will open up new applications of flow analysis in other disciplines, such as chemistry, biomedicine and structural mechanics, and will continue to grow in importance. This will be stimulated by the development of new numerical techniques which can efficiently capture flow structures with large differences in length and time scales, the continuous increase in computing power, and by exploiting computational fluid dynamics in multi-physics applications.