Updating Undergraduate Heat Transfer

The classic diagram of a flat-plate boundary layer.

For many engineering students, their first exposure to fluid dynamics comes in a heat transfer class. The typical focus in these classes is not on the underlying physics but on learning to use empirical formulas and correlations that are used in engineering heat exchangers, computer fans, and other applications.

As part of this, students are presented with an extremely simplified view of classical flows like flow over a flat wall, known as a flat-plate boundary layer. Students are told that there are two main features of this and other flows: a laminar region where flow is smooth and orderly, and a turbulent region where flow is chaotic and better at mixing. The transition between these two, according to the undergraduate picture, takes place at a particular point that can be calculated as part of the correlation.

The problem with this picture is that it grossly oversimplifies the actual physics, and for students who may not take dedicated, graduate-level fluid dynamics courses, leaves future engineers with a false understanding that may impact their designs. The truth of transition is far more complicated and nuanced. Transition from laminar to turbulent flow rarely takes place at a single, predictable point; instead it takes place over an extended region and where it begins depends on factors like geometry, vibration, and the level of turbulence already present in the flow.

In an effort to bring undergraduate heat transfer correlations more in line with actual physics — as well as with real, experimental data — a new study revamps the mathematical models. Personally, I applaud any effort to add some nuance to the introduction of this important topic. (Image and research credit: J. Lienhard; via

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