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Facts At Your Fingertips

Dimensionless numbers in fluid dynamics

Department Editor: Scott Jenkins

imensionless numbers refer

to physical parameters that
have no units of measurement.
These numbers often appear in calculations used by process engineers.
As long as consistent units are used,
dimensionless numbers remain the
same whether metric or other units
are used in the equations. Here are
some dimensionless numbers often
used in chemical engineering fluid dynamics calculations:
Reynolds number (Re). Reynolds
numbers express the ratio of inertial
forces to viscous forces in a flowing
fluid, and represent a way to quantify
the importance of these two types of
forces under a given set of flow conditions. When calculating pressure,
heat transfer or head loss in pipes, it
is important to know whether a fluid is
exhibiting laminar flow, turbulent flow,
or a mixture of the two. Re is typically
used as a criterion for determining
whether pipe flow is laminar or turbulent. High Reynolds numbers are
associated with turbulent flow, where
inertial forces dominate and flow is
chaotic and characterized by eddies
and vortices. Low Reynolds numbers are associated with laminar flow,
where flow paths are smooth and viscous forces dominate as defined by
Equation (1). The term is named for
U.K. physicist Osborne Reynolds.
Re = ( v L) /


is fluid density
v is fluid velocity
L is characteristic linear dimension
(traveled length of the fluid)
is fluids dynamic viscosity
Prandtl Number (Pr). Prandtl numbers represent the ratio between kinematic viscosity and thermal diffusivity of a fluid. It is used in calculations
that involve heat transfer in flowing
fluids because it provides a measure
of the relative thickness of the thermal
and momentum boundary layers. A
fluids Prandtl number is based on its
physical properties alone. For many
gases (with the notable exception of
hydrogen), Pr lies in the range of 0.6

to 0.8 over a wide range of conditions. Named after German physicist

Ludwig Prandtl, Pr can be calculated
using the following equation:
Pr = (CP) / k


CP is fluid specific heat capacity

is dynamic viscosity
k is thermal conductivity
Nusselt number (Nu). In heat transfer at the boundary or surface of a
flowing fluid, the Nusselt number is
the ratio of convective to conductive heat transfer across the boundary over a given length. When Nu is
close to one, convection and conduction are of similar magnitude, which is
characteristic of laminar flow. Larger
Nusselt numbers are associated with
higher convection and turbulent flow.
Named for German engineer Wilhelm
Nusselt, Nu can be calculated with
the following equation:
Nu = (hl) / k


h is heat transfer coefficient

l is characteristic length (for heat
transfer in pipes, l is equal to the pipe
k is thermal conductivity
Sherwood Number (Sh). Somewhat analogous to the Nusselt number, but for mass transfer, rather than
heat transfer, the Sherwood number
is a ratio of convective and diffusive
mass transfer in a fluid. Named for
American engineer Thomas Kilgore
Sherwood, Sh can be calculated using the following equation:
Sh = (hD l) / D


hD is mass transfer coefficient

l is characteristic length
D is molecular diffusivity
Froude number (Fr). As the ratio
between inertial and gravitational
forces, the Froude number can be
used to determine the resistance of
an object moving through a fluid.
Named for English engineer William
Froude, Fr can be calculated with the
following equation:



Fr = v / (g l)1/2

v is velocity
l is characteristic length
g is acceleration due to gravity
Grashof Number (Gr). The Grashof
number expresses the ratio of buoyancy to viscous force in a fluid. It can
serve to correlate heat and mass
transfer due to thermally induced
natural convection at a solid surface
immersed in a fluid. Named after German engineer Franz Grashof, Gr is
shown in the following equation:
Gr = (L3 gT) / v2


L is characteristic length
is volumetric thermal expansion
T is the difference between surface temperature and bulk temperature of the fluid
v is kinematic viscosity
g is acceleration due to gravity
Mach number (Ma). Mach number is
the ratio of fluid velocity to the velocity
of sound in that medium. In chemical
engineering, Ma is commonly used
in calculations involving high-velocity
gas flow. The Mach number is named
for Austrian physicist Ernst Mach. It
can be calculated with the following

Ma = u/v

u is velocity of the fluid

v is the velocity of sound in that
Schmidt number (Sc). The Schmidt
numbers is the ratio of kinematic
viscosity to diffusivity in a fluid, and
characterizes fluid flow where there
are molecular momentum and massdiffusion convection processes occurring simultaneously. Named for
German engineer Heinrich Schmidt,
the number can be calculated using
the following equation:
Sc = / D


is dynamic viscosity
is fluid density
D is diffusivity