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. Turbulence can be exploited, for example, by devices such as aerodynamic spoilers on aircraft that "spoil" the laminar flow to increase drag and reduce lift.

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
  • 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 boundary layer flow over the front of the sphere would be laminar at typical conditions. However, the boundary layer would separate early, as the pressure gradient switched from favorable (pressure decreasing in the flow direction) to unfavorable (pressure increasing in the flow direction), creating a large region of low pressure behind the ball that creates high form drag. To prevent this, the surface is dimpled to perturb the boundary layer and promote turbulence. This results in higher skin friction, but it moves the point of boundary layer separation further along, resulting in lower drag.
  • Clear-air turbulence experienced during airplane flight, as well as poor astronomical seeing (the blurring of images seen through the atmosphere).
  • Most of the terrestrial atmospheric circulation.
  • The oceanic and atmospheric mixed layers and intense oceanic currents.
  • The flow conditions in many industrial equipment (such as pipes, ducts, precipitators, gas scrubbers, dynamic scraped surface heat exchangers, etc.) and machines (for instance, internal combustion engines and gas turbines).
  • The external flow over all kinds of vehicles such as cars, airplanes, ships, and submarines.
  • The motions of matter in stellar atmospheres.
  • A jet exhausting from a nozzle into a quiescent fluid. As the flow emerges into this external fluid, shear layers originating at the lips of the nozzle are created. These layers separate the fast moving jet from the external fluid, and at a certain critical Reynolds number they become unstable and break down to turbulence.
  • Biologically generated turbulence resulting from swimming animals affects ocean mixing.[5]
Question, Web Fundamentals.svg Unsolved problem in physics:
Is it possible to make a theoretical model to describe the behavior of a turbulent flow — in particular, its internal structures?
(more unsolved problems in physics)
  • Snow fences work by inducing turbulence in the wind, forcing it to drop much of its snow load near the fence.
  • Bridge supports (piers) in water. In the late summer and fall, when river flow is slow, water flows smoothly around the support legs. In the spring, when the flow is faster, a higher Reynolds number is associated with the flow. The flow may start off laminar but is quickly separated from the leg and becomes turbulent.
  • In many geophysical flows (rivers, atmospheric boundary layer), the flow turbulence is dominated by the coherent structures and turbulent events. A turbulent event is a series of turbulent fluctuations that contain more energy than the average flow turbulence.[6][7] The turbulent events are associated with coherent flow structures such as eddies and turbulent bursting, and they play a critical role in terms of sediment scour, accretion and transport in rivers as well as contaminant mixing and dispersion in rivers and estuaries, and in the atmosphere.
  • In the medical field of cardiology, a stethoscope is used to detect heart sounds and bruits, which are due to turbulent blood flow. In normal individuals, heart sounds are a product of turbulent flow as heart valves close. However, in some conditions turbulent flow can be audible due to other reasons, some of them pathological. For example, in advanced atherosclerosis, bruits (and therefore turbulent flow) can be heard in some vessels that have been narrowed by the disease process.
  • Recently, turbulence in porous media became a highly debated subject.[8]