In physics and fluid mechanics, a boundary layer is that layer of fluid in the immediate vicinity of a bounding surface. In the Earth's atmosphere, the planetary boundary layer is the air layer near the ground affected by diurnal heat, moisture or momentum transfer to or from the surface. On an aircraft wing the boundary layer is the part of the flow close to the wing. The boundary layer effect occurs at the field region in which all changes occur in the flow pattern. The boundary layer distorts surrounding nonviscous flow. It is a phenomenon of viscous forces. This effect is related to the Reynolds number.
Laminar boundary layers come in various forms and can be loosely classified according to their structure and the circumstances under which they are created. The thin shear layer which develops on an oscillating body is an example of a Stokes boundary layer, whilst the Blasius boundary layer refers to the well-known similarity solution for the steady boundary layer attached to a flat plate held in an oncoming unidirectional flow. When a fluid rotates, viscous forces may be balanced by the Coriolis effect, rather than convective inertia, leading to the formation of an Ekman layer. Thermal boundary layers also exist in heat transfer. Multiple types of boundary layers can coexist near a surface simultaneously.
The aerodynamic boundary layer was first defined by Ludwig Prandtl in a paper presented on August 12, 1904 at the third International Congress of Mathematicians in Heidelberg, Germany. It allows aerodynamicists to simplify the equations of fluid flow by dividing the flow field into two areas: one inside the boundary layer, where viscosity is dominant and the majority of the drag experienced by a body immersed in a fluid is created, and one outside the boundary layer where viscosity can be neglected without significant effects on the solution. This allows a closed-form solution for the flow in both areas, which is a significant simplification over the solution of the full Navier–Stokes equations. The majority of the heat transfer to and from a body also takes place within the boundary layer, again allowing the equations to be simplified in the flow field outside the boundary layer.
The thickness of the velocity boundary layer is normally defined as the distance from the solid body at which the flow velocity is 99% of the freestream velocity, that is, the velocity that is calculated at the surface of the body in an inviscid flow solution. An alternative definition, the displacement thickness, recognises the fact that the boundary layer represents a deficit in mass flow compared to an inviscid case with slip at the wall. It is the distance by which the wall would have to be displaced in the inviscid case to give the same total mass flow as the viscous case. The no-slip condition requires the flow velocity at the surface of a solid object be zero and the fluid temperature be equal to the temperature of the surface. The flow velocity will then increase rapidly within the boundary layer, governed by the boundary layer equations, below. The thermal boundary layer thickness is similarly the distance from the body at which the temperature is 99% of the temperature found from an inviscid solution. The ratio of the two thicknesses is governed by the Prandtl number. If the Prandtl number is 1, the two boundary layers are the same thickness. If the Prandtl number is greater than 1, the thermal boundary layer is thinner than the velocity boundary layer. If the Prandtl number is less than 1, which is the case for air at standard conditions, the thermal boundary layer is thicker than the velocity boundary layer.
In high-performance designs, such as sailplanes and commercial transport aircraft, much attention is paid to controlling the behavior of the boundary layer to minimize drag. Two effects have to be considered. First, the boundary layer adds to the effective thickness of the body, through the displacement thickness, hence increasing the pressure drag. Secondly, the shear forces at the surface of the wing create skin friction drag.
At high Reynolds numbers, typical of full-sized aircraft, it is desirable to have a laminar boundary layer. This results in a lower skin friction due to the characteristic velocity profile of laminar flow. However, the boundary layer inevitably thickens and becomes less stable as the flow develops along the body, and eventually becomes turbulent, the process known as boundary layer transition. One way of dealing with this problem is to suck the boundary layer away through a porous surface (see Boundary layer suction). This can result in a reduction in drag, but is usually impractical due to the mechanical complexity involved and the power required to move the air and dispose of it. Natural laminar flow is the name for techniques pushing the boundary layer transition aft by shaping of an aerofoil or a fuselage so that their thickest point is aft and less thick. This reduces the velocities in the leading part and the same Reynolds number is achieved with a greater length.
At lower Reynolds numbers, such as those seen with model aircraft, it is relatively easy to maintain laminar flow. This gives low skin friction, which is desirable. However, the same velocity profile which gives the laminar boundary layer its low skin friction also causes it to be badly affected by adverse pressure gradients. As the pressure begins to recover over the rear part of the wing chord, a laminar boundary layer will tend to separate from the surface. Such flow separation causes a large increase in the pressure drag, since it greatly increases the effective size of the wing section. In these cases, it can be advantageous to deliberately trip the boundary layer into turbulence at a point prior to the location of laminar separation, using a turbulator. The fuller velocity profile of the turbulent boundary layer allows it to sustain the adverse pressure gradient without separating. Thus, although the skin friction is increased, overall drag is decreased. This is the principle behind the dimpling on golf balls, as well as vortex generators on aircraft. Special wing sections have also been designed which tailor the pressure recovery so laminar separation is reduced or even eliminated. This represents an optimum compromise between the pressure drag from flow separation and skin friction from induced turbulence.