When Turbulence Is Desirable

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One of the common themes in aerodynamics, especially in sports applications, is that tripping the flow to turbulence can decrease drag compared to maintaining laminar flow. This seems counterintuitive, but only because part of the story is missing. When a fluid flows around a complex shape, there are actually three options: laminar, turbulent, or separated flow. An object’s shape creates pressure forces on the surrounding fluid flow, in some cases causing an increasing, or unfavorable, pressure gradient. When this occurs, fluid, especially the slower-moving fluid near a surface, can struggle to continue flowing in the streamwise flow direction. Consider the video above, in which the flow moves from left to right. Near the surface a turbulent boundary layer is visible, where fluid motion is significantly slower and more random. Occasionally the flow even reverses direction and billows up off the surface. This is separation. Unlike laminar boundary layers, turbulent boundary layers can better resist and recover from flow separation. This is ultimately what makes them preferable when dealing with the aerodynamics of complex objects.  (Video credit: A. Hoque)

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