A BREAKTHROUGH by Hampshire scientists in understanding how turbulence works is set to save the aviation industry billions of pounds in fuel costs.

The trailblazing team at the University of Southampton, together with colleagues in the USA, have discovered a way of finding out how the complex world of turbulence behaves.

Their computerised modelling of air flow now paves the way for engineers to design faster and more efficient planes which can cut drag on wings by as much as 30 per cent.

Turbulence – the unpredictable movement of fluids seen in everything from stream water to swirling smoke – has been described as one of the last unsolved problems of classical physics.

Dr Ati Sharma, a senior lecturer in aerodynamics and flight mechanics, said: “The interesting puzzle has always been how to predict the seemingly chaotic motion of a turbulent fluid.

“Although very complicated, scientists have always observed recurring patterns in turbulence.

“The great red spot on Jupiter would be one well-known example.

“Somehow these motions must be encouraged more than others, so we started by asking the question, ‘what motions of the fluid does the flow amplify the most?’.”

Dr Sharma and US colleague Professor Beverley McKeon’s models break down large-scale flow into simpler “blocks”

that can be combined to build simulations comparable to an expensive laboratory or supercomputer experiment on a laptop computer.

It will make it easier for engineers to understand the flows by giving them a template that can be used to try to visually and mathematically identify how the phenomena behaves.

By capturing the “skeleton of turbulence” researchers will be able to modify turbulence in order to control flow and reduce drag or noise.

“Imagine being able to shape not just an aircraft wing but the characteristics of the turbulence in the flow over it to optimise aircraft performance,” said Prof McKeon, from the Graduate Aerospace Laboratories in Calfornia.

“It opens the doors for entirely new capabilities in vehicle performance that may reduce the consumption of even renewable or non-fossil fuels.”

The research is published online in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics.