Removing the stiffness from interfacial flows with surface tension

Thomas Y. Hou, John S. Lowengrub, Michael J. Shelley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A new formulation and new methods are presented for computing the motion of fluid interfaces with surface tension in two-dimensional, irrotational, and incompressible fluids. Through the Laplace-Young condition at the interface, surface tension introduces high-order terms, both nonlinear and nonlocal, into the dynamics. This leads to severe stability constraints for explicit time integration methods and makes the application of implicit methods difficult. This new formulation has all the nice properties for time integration methods that are associated with having a linear, constant coefficient, highest order term. That is, using this formulation, we give implicit time integration methods that have no high order time step stability constraint associated with surface tension and are explicit in Fourier space. The approach is based on a boundary integral formulation and applies more generally, even to problems beyond the fluid mechanical context. Here they are applied to computing with high resolution the motion of interfaces in Hele-Shaw flows and the motion of free surfaces in inviscid flows governed by the Euler equations. One Hele-Shaw computation shows the behavior of an expanding gas bubble over long-time as the interface undergoes successive tip-splittings and finger competition. A second computation shows the formation of a very ramified interface through the interaction of surface tension with an unstable density stratification. In Euler flows, the computation of a vortex sheet shows its roll-up through the Kelvin-Helmholtz instability. This motion culminates in the late time self-intersection of the interface, creating trapped bubbles of fluid, This is, we believe, a type of singularity formation previously unobserved for such flows in 2D. Finally, computations of falling plumes in an unstably stratified Boussinesq fluid show a very similar behavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)312-338
Number of pages27
JournalJournal of Computational Physics
Issue number2
StatePublished - Oct 1994

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Numerical Analysis
  • Modeling and Simulation
  • Physics and Astronomy (miscellaneous)
  • General Physics and Astronomy
  • Computer Science Applications
  • Computational Mathematics
  • Applied Mathematics


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