Models of the Fluid: Control Volumes and Fluid Elements

Aerodynamics is a fundamental science, steeped in physical observation. As you proceed through this book, make every effort to gradually develop a “physical feel” for the material. An important virtue of all successful aerodynamicists (indeed, of all successful engineers and scientists) is that they have good “physical intuition,” based on thought and experience, which allows them to make reasonable judgments on difficult problems. Although this chapter is full of equations and (seemingly) esoteric concepts, now is the time for you to start developing this physical feel.

With this section, we begin to build the basic equations of aerodynamics. There is a certain philosophical procedure involved with the development of these equations, as follows:

1. Invoke three fundamental physical principles which are deeply entrenched in our macroscopic observations of nature, namely,

a. Mass is conserved, i. e., mass can be neither created nor destroyed.

b. Newton’s second law: force = mass x acceleration.

c. Energy is conserved; it can only change from one form to another.

2. Determine a suitable model of the fluid. Remember that a fluid is a squishy substance, and therefore it is usually more difficult to describe than a well-defined solid body. Hence, we have to adopt a reasonable model of the fluid to which we can apply the fundamental principles stated in item 1.

3. Apply the fundamental physical principles listed in item 1 to the model of the fluid determined in item 2 in order to obtain mathematical equations which properly describe the physics of the flow. In turn, use these fundamental equations to analyze any particular aerodynamic flow problem of interest.

In this section, we concentrate on item 2; namely, we ask the question: What is a suitable model of the fluid? How do we visualize this squishy substance in order to apply the three fundamental physical principles to it? There is no single answer to this question; rather, three different models have been used successfully throughout the modern evolution of aerodynamics. They are (1) finite control volume, (2) infinitesimal fluid element, and (3) molecular. Let us examine what these models involve and how they are applied.