In fluid dynamics, turbulence or turbulent flow is a flow regime characterized by chaotic and stochastic property changes. This includes low momentum diffusion, high momentum convection, and rapid variation of pressure and velocity in space and time. Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman described turbulence as "the most important unsolved problem of classical physics." Flow in which the kinetic energy dies out due to the action of fluid molecular viscosity is called laminar flow. While there is no theorem relating the non-dimensional Reynolds number (Re) to turbulence, flows at Reynolds numbers larger than 5000 are typically (but not necessarily) turbulent, while those at low Reynolds numbers usually remain laminar. In Poiseuille flow, for example, turbulence can first be sustained if the Reynolds number is larger than a critical value of about 2040; moreover, the turbulence is generally interspersed with laminar flow until a larger Reynolds number of about 3000. In turbulent flow, unsteady vortices appear on many scales and interact with each other. Drag due to boundary layer skin friction increases. The structure and location of boundary layer separation often changes, sometimes resulting in a reduction of overall drag. Although laminar-turbulent transition is not governed by Reynolds number, the same transition occurs if the size of the object is gradually increased, or the viscosity of the fluid is decreased, or if the density of the fluid is increased.
Turbulence is highly characterized by the following features:
Irregularity: Turbulent flows are always highly irregular. This is why turbulence problems are always treated statistically rather than deterministically. Turbulent flow is always chaotic but not all chaotic flows are turbulent.
Diffusivity: The readily available supply of energy in turbulent flows tends to accelerate the homogenization (mixing) of fluid mixtures. The characteristic which is responsible for the enhanced mixing and increased rates of mass, momentum and energy transports in a flow is called "diffusivity".
Rotationality: Turbulent flows have non-zero vorticity and are characterized by a strong three-dimensional vortex generation mechanism known as vortex stretching. In fluid dynamics, they are essentially vortices subjected to stretching associated with a corresponding increase of the component of vorticity in the stretching direction—due to the conservation of angular momentum. On the other hand, vortex stretching is the core mechanism on which the turbulence energy cascade relies to establish the structure function. In general, the stretching mechanism
mplies thinning of the vortices in the direction perpendicular to the stretching direction due to volume conservation of fluid elements. As a result, the radial length scale of the vortices decreases and the larger flow structures break down into smaller structures. The process continues until the small scale structures are small enough to the extent where their kinetic energy is overwhelmed by the fluid's molecular viscosity and dissipated into heat. This is why turbulence is always rotational and three dimensional. For example, atmospheric cyclones are rotational but their substantially two-dimensional shapes do not allow vortex generation and so are not turbulent. On the other hand, oceanic flows are dispersive but essentially non rotational and therefore are not turbulent.
Dissipation: To sustain turbulent flow, a persistent source of energy supply is required because turbulence dissipates rapidly as the kinetic energy is converted into internal energy by viscous shear stress.
Energy cascade: Turbulent flow can be realized as a superposition of a spectrum of velocity fluctuations and eddies upon a mean flow. The eddies are loosely defined as coherent patterns of velocity, vorticity and pressure. Turbulent flows may be viewed as made of an entire hierarchy of eddies over a wide range of length scales and the hierarchy can be described by the energy spectrum that measures the energy in velocity fluctuations for each wave number. The scales in the energy cascade are generally uncontrollable and highly non-symmetric. Nevertheless, based on these length scales these eddies can be divided into three categories.
Integral length scales: Largest scales in the energy spectrum. These eddies obtain energy from the mean flow and also from each other. Thus these are the energy production eddies which contain the most of the energy. They have the large velocity fluctuation and are low in frequency. Integral scales are highly anisotropic and are defined in terms of the normalized two-point velocity correlations. The maximum length of these scales is constrained by the characteristic length of the apparatus. For example, the largest integral length scale of pipe flow is equal to the pipe diameter. In the case of atmospheric turbulence, this length can reach up to the order of several hundreds kilometers.
Kolmogorov length scales: Smallest scales in the spectrum that form the viscous sub-layer range. In this range, the energy input from nonlinear interactions and the energy drain from viscous dissipation are in exact balance. The small scales are in high frequency which is why turbulence is locally isotropic and homogeneous.