Fuck Yeah Fluid Dynamics

Celebrating the physics of all that flows. Ask a question, submit a post idea or send an email. You can also follow FYFD on Twitter and Google+. FYFD is written by Nicole Sharp, PhD.

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Posts tagged "swimming"

Many fish swim in close proximity to one another in large schools, causing scientists to wonder if this behavior is motivated primarily by defense against predators or whether fish derive some hydrodynamic advantages from schooling. Examining the fluid dynamics of an entire school of fish is rather impractical, so researchers approximate two neighboring swimmers using flapping hydrofoils. The images above show flow visualizations of the wakes of these two mechanical swimmers. When the two hydrofoils flap in-phase with one another (top image), one oscillation period produces a complicated pattern of many vortices zig-zagging behind the foils. This configuration produces more efficient propulsion than a single hydrofoil, meaning that more of the energy in the wake is used to produce thrust. The cost, however, is reduced thrust overall. The bottom image shows the wake pattern for hydrofoils flapping out-of-phase. This behavior enhanced thrust without reducing propulsive efficiency. The results suggest that schooling fish might choose different swimming strategies depending on the situation.   (Image credits: P. Dewey et al.

Animals often move in ways engineers find counter-intuitive. Take, for example, the glass knifefish, an undulatory swimmer that controls its motion through wavelike oscillations of its fin. One might expect the knifefish to move its fin so that a single continuous wave moves from one end to the other. Instead two opposing waves move down the knifefish’s fins, one travelling from head to tail and the other travelling from the tail forward. The intersection of these waves is the nodal point, and, by shifting the nodal point fore or aft, the knifefish can hover in place, move forward or swim backward. At first glance, this seems like a wasteful system since a significant portion of each wave cancels the other, but, through mathematical modeling and experiments with a biomimetic robot, the researchers found that the dual-wave locomotion increases both the stability and maneuverability of the fish. (Video credit: N. Cowan et al.; via phys.org)

The dimensionless Reynolds number is a key concept in fluid dynamics, allowing scientists to distinguish regimes of flow between differing geometries and even different fluids. This video gives a great primer on the subject by examining the physics of swimming for a sperm versus a sperm whale. The Reynolds number is essentially a ratio between inertial forces (driven by velocity and size) and viscous forces, and its value can indicate how important different effects are. Sperm and other microbes live at very small Reynolds numbers, meaning that viscosity dominates as the force they must overcome to move. For more on the low Reynolds number world, check out how brine shrimp swim and what happens if a microbe tries to flap its tail. (Hint: it goes nowhere, and this is why.) (Video credit: A. Bhatia/TED Ed; via Jennifer Ouellette)

Does a person swim faster in water or syrup? One expects the more viscous syrup would offer a swimmer greater resistance, but, at the same time, it could also provide more to push against. Gettelfinger and Cussler put this to a test experimentally with competitive and recreational swimmers in a pool of water and in one with a fluid measuring roughly twice the viscosity of water. Their results showed no significant change in swimming speed. When you consider that human swimming is highly turbulent, however, the result makes sense. In fluid dynamics, the dimensionless Reynolds number represents a ratio between inertial forces and viscous forces in a flow. The researchers estimate a Reynolds number of a typical human in water at 600,000, meaning that inertial effects far outweigh viscous effects. In this case, doubling the viscosity only reduces the Reynolds number by half, leaving it still well inside the turbulent range. Thus, swimming in syrup has little effect on humans. The Mythbusters also tackled this problem, with similar conclusions. This is a continuation of a series on fluids-related Ig Nobel Prizes. (Photo credit: Mythbusters/Discovery Channel; research credit: B. Gettelfinger and E. L. Cussler, winners of the 2005 Ig Nobel Prize in Chemistry)

This numerical simulation shows a swimming stingray and the vorticity generated by its motion. Stingrays are undulatory swimmers, meaning that the wavelength of their motion is much shorter than their body length. Manta rays, in contrast, move their fins through a wavelength longer than their body length, making them oscillatory swimmers. Observe the difference in this video. To swim faster, stingrays increase the frequency of their undulation, not the amplitude. This is quite common among swimmers because increasing the amplitude also increases projected frontal area, which causes additional drag. Increasing the frequency of motion does not affect the projected area, making it the more efficient locomotive choice. (Video credit: G. Weymouth; additional research credit: E. Blevins; submitted by L. Buss)

Also, FYFD now has a Google+ page for those who prefer to follow along and share that way. - Nicole


Time for another fluids round-up! Here are your links:

  • Back in January 1919, a five-story-high metal tank full of molasses broke and released a wave of viscous non-Newtonian fluid through Boston’s North End. Scientific American examines the physics of the Great Molasses Flood, including how to swim in molasses. If you can imagine what it’s like to swim in molasses, you’ll know something of the struggle microbes experience to move through any fluid. They also discusses some of the strange ways tiny creatures swim.
  • In sandy desert environments, helicopter blades can light up the night with so-called helicopter halos. The effect is similar to what causes sparks from a grinding wheel. Learn more about this Kopp-Etchells effect.
  • Check out this ominous footage of a tornadic cell passing through Colorado last week.
  • If you want more of a science-y look to your drinkware, you should check out the Periodic TableWare collection over on Kickstarter.
  • Finally, wingsuits really take the idea of gliding flight to some crazy extremes. Check out this video of in-flight footage. Watch for the guy’s wingtip vortices at 3:16 (screencap above)! (submitted by Jason C)

(Photo credit: Squirrel)


Sometimes I come across cool links and stories about fluid dynamics that don’t quite fit into a typical FYFD post, but I’d like to start sharing those semi-regularly with round-up posts. Here’s some fun stuff I’ve seen lately:

And, yes, that last Specialized video chat includes an FYFD shout-out about 49 minutes in. :)

(Photo credit: Specialized)

Reader juleztalks writes:

I’ve just entered an amateur triathlon, and there’s a whole load of rules about not “drafting” in the cycle stage (basically, not sitting in other cyclists’ slipstream). However, there are no such rules for the swim or run stage; I thought the effects would be the same from drafting other swimmers and runners. Any ideas?

As in many endurance sports, it’s all a question of energy savings from drag reduction. Drag on an object, like a triathlete, is roughly proportional to fluid density (air for cycling or running, water for swimming), frontal area, and the velocity squared. Because drag increases more drastically for an increase in velocity, it makes sense one would worry most about drag when one’s velocity is highest - on the bike.

Drafting has major benefits in cycling and can reduce drag on a rider by 25-40%. Aerodynamic drag accounts for 70% or more of a cyclist’s energy expenditure, so that reduction can really add up. The energy saved by drafting during cycling can even increase a triathlete’s speed during a subsequent running leg. So it makes sense for a sport’s governing body to be concerned with it.

That said, there’s plenty of room for drag reduction in swimming as well. Even though the velocities are much lower, water’s density is 1,000 times higher than air’s, generating plenty of drag for an athlete to overcome. For swimmers at maximum speed, drafting can reduce drag by 13-26%, depending on relative positioning. Such drafting has been found to increase stroke length and may (or may notimprove subsequent cycling performance.

Although a similar reduction in drag is possible by drafting when running, drag on a runner only accounts for about 8% of his/her energy expenditure so such savings would matters very little next to the swimming and cycling legs. There could be some psychological benefits, though, in terms of pacing oneself. (Photo credit: Optum Pro Cycling p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies)

This gorgeous visualization shows the flow behind a flapping foil. Flow in the water tunnel is from right to left, with dye introduced to show streamlines. A flapping foil is a good base model for most flapping flight as well as finned swimming - anything that oscillates to create thrust. As the foil flaps, vorticity is generated and shed along the trailing edge, creating a regularly patterned wake of trailing vortices. (Video credit: R. Godoy-Diana)

captainandry asks:

What would happen to a fish or swimmer in a standing wave?

First of all, check out the video that inspired this question, which shows a standing water wave created in a wave tank. Before we tackle the standing wave, it’s helpful to know what motion exists in a typical water wave. For deep water waves, the motion of a particle as the waves pass is circular, with a decreasing radius with increasing depth. Below a certain depth the energy of the surface wave doesn’t penetrate. Here’s an animation, where the red dots represent massless particles and the blue circles show their paths:

In shallower waters, the circular paths get compressed into ellipses. The image below shows pathlines for particles at different depths as a water wave passes. Notice how the paths are circular near the surface, where the depth is much greater than the wavelength, while close to the bottom, the pathlines are elliptical.

So what about motion for a standing water wave? Such a wave has no apparent horizontal motion, as seen in the animation below:

Similar to the way that decreasing the depth compresses the circular particle motion into an ellipsoid, creating a standing wave compresses the horizontal motion of any particle near the surface. What this means is that anything floating near the surface of the standing wave will simply bob up and down. Unless it’s located at one of the nodes (marked by red dots), in which case it won’t move at all! As with the other types of water waves, the amount of displacement will decrease with depth. People and fish, of course, are not massless particles, so their motion will be damped by inertia, but the same principles apply. 

(Photo credits: P. Videtich; R. L. Wiegel and J.W. Johnson; Wikipedia)