Incompressible flow

Incompressible flow does not imply that the fluid itself is incompressible. It is shown in the derivation below that (under the right conditions) even compressible fluids can – to a good approximation – be modelled as an incompressible flow. Incompressible flow implies that the density remains constant within a parcel of fluid that moves with the flow velocity.

The negative sign in the above expression ensures that outward flow results in a decrease in the mass with respect to time, using the convention that the surface area vector points outward. Now, using the divergence theorem we can derive the relationship between the flux and the partial time derivative of the density:

A change in the density over time would imply that the fluid had either compressed or expanded (or that the mass contained in our constant volume, dV, had changed), which we have prohibited. We must then require that the material derivative of the density vanishes, and equivalently (for non-zero density) so must the divergence of the flow velocity:

And so beginning with the conservation of mass and the constraint that the density within a moving volume of fluid remains constant, it has been shown that an equivalent condition required for incompressible flow is that the divergence of the flow velocity vanishes.

In some fields, a measure of the incompressibility of a flow is the change in density as a result of the pressure variations. This is best expressed in terms of the compressibility

If the compressibility is acceptably small, the flow is considered incompressible.

As defined earlier, an incompressible (isochoric) flow is the one in which

Thus homogeneous materials always undergo flow that is incompressible, but the converse is not true. That is, compressible materials might not experience compression in the flow.

In fluid dynamics, a flow is considered incompressible if the divergence of the flow velocity is zero. However, related formulations can sometimes be used, depending on the flow system being modelled. Some versions are described below:

The stringent nature of the incompressible flow equations means that specific mathematical techniques have been devised to solve them. Some of these methods include: