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Incompressible flow

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A flow is said to be incompressible if the density of a fluid element does not change during its motion. It is a property of the flow and not of the fluid. The rate of change of density of a material fluid element is given by the material derivative

\frac{D \rho}{D t} = \frac{\partial \rho}{\partial t} + u_j \frac{\partial \rho}{\partial x_j}

From the continuity equation we have

\frac{D \rho}{D t} = - \rho \frac{\partial u_j}{\partial x_j}

Hence the flow is incompressible if the divergence of the velocity field is identically zero. Note that the density field need not be uniform in an incompressible flow. All that is required is that the density of a fluid element should not change in time as it moves through space. For example, flow in the ocean can be considered to be incompressible even though the density of water is not uniform due to stratification.

Compressible flow can with good accuracy be approximated as incompressible for steady flow if the Mach number is below 0.3.

Dimensional analysis

Assume L is the characteristic length, U is the characteristic velocity, the magnitude of velocity gradient is U/L. The physical meaning of the incompressible flow is

\frac{\partial u_j}{\partial x_j} \approx 0


|\frac{\partial u_j}{\partial x_j}|=|\rho^{-1}\frac{d\rho}{dt}| << U/L.

It is know that

\rho^{-1}\frac{d\rho}{dt}=\rho^{-1}\frac{d\rho}{dp}\frac{dp}{dt}=(\rho c^2)^{-1}\frac{dp}{dt},

where c is the sound speed. Hence, the incompressible condition is,

|\frac{1}{\rho c^2}\frac{dp}{dt}|<<U/L.

In general, for the liquid, \rho=const and \frac{\rho}{dt}=0. So the question is that under what contion, the gas flow can be taken as incompressible flow?

We have

\frac{dp}{dt}=\frac{\partial p}{\partial t}+u_i\frac{\partial p}{\partial x_i}=\frac{\partial p}{\partial t}-\rho u_i(\frac{\partial u_i}{\partial t}+u_j\frac{\partial u_i}{\partial x_j})+\rho u_i f_i+u_i \frac{\partial \sigma_{i,j}}{\partial x_j},

where f_i is the body force (taken as gravitational force in the present document), \sigma_{i,j} is the stress tensor defined as,

\sigma_{i,j}=\eta e_{kk}\delta_{ij}+2\mu e_{ij},

where e_{ij}=\frac{1}{2}(\frac{\partial u_i}{\partial x_j}+\frac{\partial u_j}{\partial x_i}).

Then we can summarize as following,

  • Steady incompressible flow

The steady flow can be take as incompressible flow under the following conditions,

\frac{1}{c^2}|u_i\frac{\partial u_ju_j}{\partial x_i}|<<U/L;\quad \frac{1}{c^2}|u_if_i|<<U/L;\quad \frac{1}{\rho c^2}|u_i \frac{\partial \sigma_{i,j}}{\partial x_j}|<<U/L.

Then it arrives,

U^2<<c^2;\quad Lg<<c^2;\quad \frac{\nu U}{L}<<c^2,

where \nu=\frac{\mu,\eta}{\rho}.

If L<10m<.math>, <math>Lg<<c^2 holds; \nu=c\lambda, so U<<\frac{Lc}{\lambda} (\lambda is the molecular free path) holds naturally for the continuous medium.

So for the steady flow, it can be taken as incompressible flow when U<<c, i.e. Ma<<1. In general, the flow will be take as incompressible flow when <\math>Ma<0.3<\math>.

  • Unsteady incompressible flow
  • Low speed atmospheric motion

Governing Equations

The Navier-Stokes equations for incompressible flow are

  • Continuity equation

\frac{\partial u_j}{\partial x_j} = 0
  • Momentum equation

\frac{\partial u_i}{\partial t} + u_j \frac{\partial u_i}{\partial x_j} + \frac{1}{\rho} \frac{\partial p}{\partial x_i} = \nu \Delta u_i
  • Energy equation

\frac{\partial E}{\partial t} + u_j \frac{\partial E}{\partial x_j} = \Phi + \frac{1}{\rho} \frac{\partial}{\partial x_j} \left( k \frac{\partial T}{\partial x_j} \right)


  • \Delta is the Laplacian operator
  • E is the internal energy per unit mass
  • \Phi is the rate of dissipation of mechanical energy per unit mass

\Phi = \nu \left( \frac{\partial u_i}{\partial x_j} + \frac{\partial u_i}{\partial x_j} \right)
\left( \frac{\partial u_i}{\partial x_j} + \frac{\partial u_i}{\partial x_j} \right)
  • \nu is the kinematic viscosity
  • k is the coefficient of thermal conductivity
  • T is the temperature

Physical characteristics

A consequence of incompressible flow is that there is no equation of state for pressure, unlike in compressible flow. Since there is no separate equation for pressure, it must be obtained from the continuity and momentum equations. The main role of pressure is to satisfy the zero divergence condition of the velocity field. Note that pressure is only determined up to a constant.

If the viscosity is assumed to be constant, then the energy equation is decoupled from the continuity and momentum equations.

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