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Turbulence Model for CFD

COMSOL Multiphysics offers several different formulations for solving
turbulent flow problems: the L-VEL, yPlus, Spalart-Allmaras, k-epsilon, komega, Low Reynolds number k-epsilon, and SST models. All of these
formulations are available in the CFD Module, and the L-VEL, yPlus, kepsilon, and Low Reynolds number k-epsilon are available in the Heat
Transfer Module. This posting outlines the reasons why we want to use
these various turbulence models, how to choose between them, and how to
use them effectively. Throughout the post, youll find links to relevant
models that highlight the features discussed.

Introduction to Turbulence Modeling

Lets start by considering the flow of a fluid over a flat plate, as shown in
the figure below. The uniform velocity fluid hits the leading edge of the flat
plate, and a laminar boundary layer begins to develop. The flow in this
region is very predictable. After some distance, small chaotic oscillations
begin to develop in the fluid field, and the flow begins to transition to
turbulence, eventually becoming fully turbulent.

The transition between these three regions can be defined in terms of

the Reynolds number,
, where
is the fluid density,
is the
is the characteristic length (in this case, the distance from the
leading edge), and
is the fluid dynamic viscosity. We will assume that
the fluid is Newtonian, meaning that the viscosity is constant with respect
to shear rate. This is true, or very nearly so, for a wide range of fluids of
engineering importance, such as air or water. Density can vary with respect
to pressure, although it is assumed that the fluid is only weakly
compressible, meaning that the Mach number is less than about 0.3.
In the laminar regime, the flow of the fluid can be completely predicted by
solving the steady-stateNavier-Stokes equations , which predict the velocity
and the pressure fields. We can assume that the velocity field does not vary
with time, and get an accurate prediction of the flow behavior. An example
of this is outlined in the model The Blasius Boundary Layer . As the flow
begins to transition to turbulence, chaotic oscillations appear in the flow,
and it is no longer possible to assume that the flow is invariant with time.
In this case, it is necessary to solve the problem in the time domain, and
the mesh used must be fine enough to resolve the size of the smallest
eddies in the flow. Such a situation is demonstrated in the example
model Flow Past a Cylinder. Steady-state and transient laminar problems
can be solved both with COMSOL Multiphysics alone, as well as along with
the Microfluidics Module , which has additional boundary conditions
applicable for flow in very small channels.

As the Reynolds number increases, the flow field exhibits small eddies, and
the timescales of the oscillations become so short that it is computationally
unfeasible to solve the Navier-Stokes equations. In this flow regime, we
can use a Reynolds-Averaged Navier-Stokes (RANS) formulation, which is
based on the observation that the flow field (u) over time contains small,
local oscillations (u) that can be treated in a time-averaged sense (U). As a
consequence, we add additional unknowns to the system of equations and
introduce approximations for the flow field at the walls.

Wall Functions
The turbulent flow near a flat wall can be divided up into four regimes. At
the wall, the fluid velocity is zero, and for a thin layer above this, the flow
velocity is linear with distance from the wall. This region is called
the viscous sublayer, or laminar sublayer. Further away from the wall is a
region called the buffer layer. In the buffer region, the flow begins to
transition to turbulent, and it eventually transitions to a region where the
flow is fully turbulent and the average flow velocity is related to the log of
the distance to the wall. This is known as the log-law region. Even further
away from the wall, the flow transitions to the free-stream region. The
viscous and buffer layers are very thin, and if the distance to the end of the
buffer layer is , then the log-law region will extend about
from the wall.

It is possible to use a RANS model to compute the flow field in all four of
these regimes. However, since the thickness of the buffer layer is so small,
it can be advantageous to use an approximation in this region. Wall
functions ignore the flow field in the buffer region, and analytically compute
a non-zero fluid velocity at the wall. By using a wall function formulation,
you assume an analytic solution for the flow in the viscous layer, and the
resultant models will have significantly lower computational requirements.
This is a very useful approach for many practical engineering applications.

If you need a level of accuracy beyond what the wall function formulations
provide, then you will want to consider a turbulence model that solves the
entire flow regime. For example, you may want to compute lift and drag on
an object, or compute the heat transfer between the fluid and the wall.
If you are solving any kind of problem where the flow is not fully turbulent,
such as a free convection problem, you will need to resolve the flow to the
wall, and should not use wall functions.

About the Various Turbulence Models

The seven RANS turbulence models differ in their usage of wall functions,
the number of additional variables solved for, and what these variables
represent. All of these models augment the Navier-Stokes equations with
an additional turbulent viscosity term, but they differ in how it is computed.
Editors note: This blog post has been updated to include information on
the L-VEL and yPlus models that were added in COMSOL Multiphysics
version 5.0, released on 10/31/2014.

L-VEL and yPlus

The L-VEL and yPlus algebraic turbulence models compute the turbulent
viscosity, based only on the local fluid velocity and the distance to the
closest wall; they do not solve for additional variables. These models solve
the flow everywhere and are the most robust and least computationally
intensive of the seven turbulence models. While they are generally the least
accurate models, they do provide good approximations for internal flow,
especially in electronic cooling applications.

The Spalart-Allmaras model adds a single additional variable for a SpalartAllmaras viscosity and does not use any wall functions; it solves the entire
flow field. The model was originally developed for aerodynamics
applications and is advantageous in that it solves for only a single
additional variable. This makes it less memory-intensive than the other

models that solve the flow field in the buffer layer. Experience shows that
this model does not accurately compute fields that exhibit shear flow,
separated flow, or decaying turbulence. Its advantage is that it is quite
stable and shows good convergence.

The k-epsilon model solves for two variables: k; the turbulent kinetic
energy, and epsilon; the rate of dissipation of kinetic energy. Wall functions
are used in this model, so the flow in the buffer region is not simulated.
The k-epsilon model is very popular for industrial applications due to its
good convergence rate and relatively low memory requirements. It does
not very accurately compute flow fields that exhibit adverse pressure
gradients, strong curvature to the flow, or jet flow. It does perform well for
external flow problems around complex geometries. For example, the kepsilon model can be used to solve for the airflow around a bluff body .

The k-omega model is similar to k-epsilon, instead however, it solves for
omega the specific rate of dissipation of kinetic energy. It also uses wall
functions and therefore has comparable memory requirements. It has more
difficulty converging and is quite sensitive to the initial guess at the
solution. Hence, the k-epsilon model is often used first to find an initial
condition for solving the k-omega model. The k-omega model is useful in
many cases where the k-epsilon model is not accurate, such as internal
flows, flows that exhibit strong curvature, separated flows, and jets. A good
example of internal flow is flow through a pipe bend .

Low Reynolds Number k-epsilon

The Low Reynolds number k-epsilon is similar to the k-epsilon model but
does not use wall functions; it solves the flow everywhere. It is a logical
extension to k-epsilon and shares many of its advantages, but uses more
memory. It is often advisable to use the k-epsilon model to first compute a

good initial condition for solving the Low Reynolds number k-epsilon model.
Since it does not use wall functions, lift and drag forces and heat flux can
be modeled with higher accuracy.

Finally, the SST model is a combination of the k-epsilon in the free stream
and the k-omega models near the walls. It does not use wall functions and
tends to be most accurate when solving the flow near the wall. The SST
model does not always converge to the solution quickly, so the k-epsilon or
k-omega models are often solved first to give good initial conditions. In an
example model, the SST model solves for flow over a NACA 0012 Airfoil,
and the results are shown to compare well with experimental data.

Meshing Considerations
Solving for any kind of fluid flow problem laminar or turbulent is
computationally intensive. Relatively fine meshes are required and there
are many variables to solve for. Ideally, you would have a very fast
computer with many gigabytes of RAM to solve such problems, but
simulations can still take hours or days for larger 3D models. Therefore, we
want to use as simple of a mesh as possible, while still capturing all of the
details of the flow.
Referring back to the figure at the top, we can observe that for the flat
plate (and for most flow problems), the velocity field changes quite slowly
in the direction tangential to the wall, but quite rapidly in the normal
direction, especially if we consider the buffer layer region. This observation
motivates the use of a boundary layer mesh. Boundary layer meshes
(which are the default mesh type on walls when using our physics-based
meshing) insert thin rectangles in 2D, or triangular prisms in 3D, at the
walls. These high aspect ratio elements will do a good job of resolving the
variations in the flow speed normal to the boundary, while reducing the
number of calculation points in the direction tangential to the boundary.

The boundary layer mesh (magenta) around an airfoil and the surrounding
triangular mesh (cyan) for a 2D mesh.

The boundary layer mesh (magenta) around a bluff body and the
surrounding tetrahedral mesh (cyan) for a 3D volumetric mesh.

Evaluating the Results of Your Turbulence

Once youve used one of these turbulence models to solve your flow
simulation, you will want to verify that the solution is accurate. Of course,
as you do with any finite element model, you can simply run it with finer
and finer meshes and observe how the solution changes with increasing
mesh refinement. Once the solution does not change to within a value you
find acceptable, your simulation can be considered converged with respect
to the mesh. However, there are additional values you need to check when
modeling turbulence.
When using wall function formulations, you will want to check the wall liftoff in viscous units (this plot is generated by default). This value tells you if
your mesh at the wall is fine enough, and should be 11.06 everywhere. If

the mesh resolution in the direction normal to the wall is too coarse, then
this value will be greater than 11.06 and you should use a finer boundary
layer mesh in these regions. The second variable that you should check
when using wall functions is the wall lift-off (in length units). This variable
is related to the assumed thickness of the viscous layer, and should be
small relative to the surrounding dimensions of the geometry. If it is not,
then you should refine the mesh in these regions as well.

The regions where the wall lift-off in viscous units is greater than 11.06
require a finer mesh.
When solving in the viscous and buffer layer, check the dimensionless
distance to cell center (also generated by default). This value should be of
order unity everywhere, and less than 0.5 for the Low Reynolds number kepsilon model. If it is not, then refine the mesh in these regions.

Concluding Thoughts

This post has discussed the various turbulence models available in COMSOL
Multiphysics, and when and why you should use each of them. The real
strength of the software is when you want to combine your fluid flow
simulations with other physics, such as finding stresses on a solar panel in
high winds, forced convection modeling in a heat exchanger , or mass
transfer in a mixer, among other possibilities.
If you are interested in using COMSOL software for your computational fluid
dynamics (CFD) and multiphysics simulations, or have a question that isnt
addressed here, please contact us.