The 'hidden' science critical to economic success

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Leading scientists say the UK risks being overtaken as a world leader in a key area of science and technology unless there is greater investment in research facilities and training.

Fluid dynamics, which sits at the intersection between maths, physics and engineering, is used to model the way liquids, gases or plasmas behave in natural and human-made systems - and it has accelerated the way products and processes are developed or improved in a wide range of industries.  

The UK fluid dynamics sector has been hugely successful... To maintain that impetus, investment needs to increase

Professor Cath Noakes, University of Leeds and SAGE member

A report published today, Our Fluid Nation - Impact of Fluid Dynamics in the UK, says the science makes a significant contribution to economic prosperity across the UK - calculated at £13.9 billion in 2019. But it warns that the country’s “global leadership” in the field is under threat and that there is an “immediate need” for a co-ordinated national research centre. 

The report also calls for greater levels of support to enable companies and universities to exploit the opportunities generated by fluid dynamics, which are key to developing new insights and products in engineering, manufacturing, and healthcare - such as the way the virus responsible for COVID-19 spreads. 

The report argues: “Fluid dynamics has the power to transform sectors but its complexity requires sustained investment in training and infrastructure. It is essential that we continue to train graduates in  mathematical and engineering skills to develop new products, processes and software... fluid dynamics will be a critical enabling technology for the UK's Industrial Strategy and future economic success." 

Critical enabling technology

One industrialist says creating a national research centre will be crucial to finding solutions for the major pressing problems facing the world. 

RV Ahilan, Chief Energy Transition Officer at energy and marine consultants ABL Group, said: “Climate change is the defining existential challenge of our time. The measures we need to find to understand, mitigate and adapt to climate change are underpinned by fluid dynamics.  A national research centre will allow industry to collaborate with the very best scientists and engineers in the field to find solutions that will have benefits worldwide.” 

Our Fluid Nation was commissioned by the the Leeds Institute for Fluids Network at the University and the UK Fluids Network, a group representing researchers in universities and industry.  

Impact of fluid dynamics 

Fluid dynamics is an “enabling technology” - the hidden science used to model complex fluid systems - and it has remained largely out of the public eye.  

From its early use in the investigation of air flow around objects in wind tunnels, its uses have multiplied with applications in just about every scientific and manufacturing sector, from the design of systems to make chocolate to understanding blood flow in the human body, the way viruses can spread through buildings to modelling weather systems. 

A droplet of liquid

Pic: Fluid dynamics investigates the flow of liquids, gases and plasmas. Image Adobe Stock

For the first time, the report quantifies the impact the sector has had on the UK economy. In 2019, there were more than 2,200 firms employing 45,000 people actively involved in fluid dynamics. Those companies generated £13.9 billion in economic output across the breadth of the UK.  

Three quarters of the firms surveyed for the report said they were expecting to see growth of at least 5% per annum over the next three years, while four out of 10 companies were expecting growth of 10% a year.  

‘Cusp of fourth industrial revolution’  

Professor Steven Tobias, Director of the Leeds Institute for Fluid Dynamics and one of the co-authors of the report, said: “Fluid dynamics is one of those areas of science that has gone largely unrecognised, but has now come of age.  

“Nearly all natural and manufactured physical systems involve fluid flows. Developments in fluid dynamics coupled with artificial intelligence, big data and supercomputing are going to change the way systems are modelled and understood.  

“And that means we will be able to dramatically reduce the time it takes to develop new products and processes. We are on the cusp of a fourth industrial revolution.”  

Reaping the benefits of research funding 

Over the last 10 years, UK Research and Innovation, the Government body that oversees research funding, invested £2.36 billion in fluid dynamics. The impact of that investment and research is now being seen in the way fluid dynamics is being used across a range of industries to dramatically accelerate the time it takes to develop new products and processes.  

In partnership with Rolls Royce, and funded by the Aerospace Technology Institute, the Whittle Laboratory at the University of Cambridge has demonstrated a 10-to-100-fold reduction in the time it takes to design, build, test, and learn from a technological concept, by embedding advanced fluid dynamics modelling into the development process.  

At the Met Office, supercomputing coupled with advanced models of the fluid dynamics of the atmosphere and oceans has resulted in more accurate weather forecasts. The four-day forecasts produced now are as accurate as the one-day forecasts produced 30 years ago.  

Importantly, fluid dynamics also provides a means for developing the new processes, fuels, and products of the future.  

Fluid dynamics at a pivotal point  

But the report warns that the achievements of the past can only be continued if there is significant investment in the discipline.   

The UK Fluids Network, the group that compiled the report, is calling on the Government, research councils and industry to invest around £100 million over the next five years.  One of the key recommendations of the Our Fluid Nation report is the creation of a national centre for fluid dynamics to exploit the UK’s research strengths and identify important emerging areas of research. A national centre could also help attract international investment.   

Matthew Juniper, Professor of Thermofluid Dynamics at the University of Cambridge and one of the co-authors of the report, said: "The UK is a global leader in fluid dynamics and hosts a creative, collaborative, and commercially-astute research community. Investment in this area multiplies several-fold into value that is captured by companies across the UK, particularly in the North, the Midlands, and Scotland.  

"A national centre would realise the potential of the entire UK Fluid Dynamics community to address today's critical societal and industrial challenges such as achieving clean air in cities, zero carbon flight, net zero energy, digital twins for healthcare, and high value manufacturing across the UK." 

Professor Cath Noakes, Deputy Director of the Leeds Institute for Fluid Dynamics and one of the report’s co-authors, said: “The UK fluid dynamics sector has been hugely successful, and that has created a technology that will help shape the world over the next few decades.  

“To maintain that impetus, investment needs to increase, otherwise we will lose out to our industrial competitors, and we will be throwing away an economic advantage we currently have.

“The UK needs a national fluid dynamics institute, a centre of excellence that will ensure the UK remains a world leader in this important discipline.”  

Further information

The report - Our Fluid Nation - Impact of Fluid Dynamics in the UK - can be downloaded from the Leeds Institude for Fluid Dynamics website.

For further details, please contact David Lewis in the University of Leeds press office.

Images are from Adobe Stock