Choked flow

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Choked flow is a compressible flow effect. The parameter that becomes "choked" or "limited" is the fluid velocity.

Choked flow is a fluid dynamic condition associated with the Venturi effect. When a flowing fluid at a given pressure and temperature passes through a restriction (such as the throat of a convergent-divergent nozzle or a valve in a pipe) into a lower pressure environment the fluid velocity increases. At initially subsonic upstream conditions, the conservation of mass principle requires the fluid velocity to increase as it flows through the smaller cross-sectional area of the restriction. At the same time, the Venturi effect causes the static pressure, and therefore the density, to decrease downstream past the restriction. Choked flow is a limiting condition which occurs when the mass flow rate will not increase with a further decrease in the downstream pressure environment while upstream pressure is fixed.

For homogeneous fluids, the physical point at which the choking occurs for adiabatic conditions is when the exit plane velocity is at sonic conditions or at a Mach number of 1.[1][2][3] At choked flow the mass flow rate can be increased by increasing density upstream of the choke point.

The choked flow of gases is useful in many engineering applications because the mass flow rate is independent of the downstream pressure, depending only on the temperature and pressure on the upstream side of the restriction. Under choked conditions, valves and calibrated orifice plates can be used to produce a desired mass flow rate.

Choked flow in liquids[edit]

If the fluid is a liquid, a different type of limiting condition (also known as choked flow) occurs when the Venturi effect acting on the liquid flow through the restriction decreases the liquid pressure to below that of the liquid vapor pressure at the prevailing liquid temperature. At that point, the liquid will partially flash into bubbles of vapor and the subsequent collapse of the bubbles causes cavitation. Cavitation is quite noisy and can be sufficiently violent to physically damage valves, pipes and associated equipment. In effect, the vapor bubble formation in the restriction limits the flow from increasing any further.[4][5]

Mass flow rate of a gas at choked conditions[edit]

All gases flow from upstream higher pressure sources to downstream lower pressure sources. There are several situations in which choked flow occurs, such as the change of cross section in a de Laval nozzle or flow through an orifice plate.

Choking in change of cross section flow[edit]

Assuming ideal gas behaviour, steady-state choked flow occurs when downstream pressure falls below a critical value p^{*}. That critical value can be calculated from the dimensionless critical pressure ratio equation[6]

\frac{p^{*}}{p_0} = \left( \frac{2}{k+1} \right)^{\frac{k}{k-1}},

where k is the heat capacity ratio c_p/c_v of the gas (also called the adiabatic index, also sometimes denoted \gamma) and p_0 is the upstream pressure.

For air with a heat capacity ratio k = 1.4, then p^{*} = 0.528 p_0; other gases have k in the range 1.09 (e.g. butane) to 1.67 (monatomic gases), so the critical pressure ratio varies in the range 0.487 < p^{*}/p_0 < 0.587, which means that, depending on the gas, choked flow usually occurs when the downstream static pressure drops to below 0.487 to 0.587 times the absolute pressure in stagnant upstream source vessel.

When the gas velocity is choked, the equation for the mass flow rate in SI metric units is:[1][2][3]

\dot m = C A \sqrt{k \rho_0 P_0 \left(\frac{2}{k + 1}\right)^{\frac{k + 1}{k - 1}}}
{\dot m} = mass flow rate, in kg/s
C = discharge coefficient, dimensionless
A = discharge hole cross-sectional area, in m²
k = c_p/c_v of the gas
c_p = specific heat of the gas at constant pressure
c_v = specific heat of the gas at constant volume
\rho_0 = real gas (total) density at total pressure P_0 and total temperature T_0, in kg/m³
P_0 = absolute upstream total pressure of the gas, in Pa
T_0 = absolute upstream total temperature of the gas, in K

The mass flow rate is primarily dependent on the cross-sectional area A of the hole and the upstream pressure P, and only weakly dependent on the temperature T. The rate does not depend on the downstream pressure at all. All other terms are constants that depend only on the composition of the material in the flow. Although the gas velocity reaches a maximum and becomes choked, the mass flow rate is not choked. The mass flow rate can still be increased if the upstream pressure is increased as this increases the density of the gas entering the orifice.

The value of C can be calculated using the below expression: C_d A = \dfrac{\dot{m}}{\rho\sqrt{{2}{\Delta} {P}}}

C_d = Discharge Coefficient through the constriction (dimensionless)
A = Cross-sectional area of flow constriction (unit length squared)
\dot{m} = Mass flow rate of fluid through constriction (unit mass of fluid per unit time)
\rho = Density of fluid (unit mass per unit volume)
\Delta P = Pressure drop across constriction (unit force per unit area)

The above equations calculate the steady state mass flow rate for the pressure and temperature existing in the upstream pressure source.

If the gas is being released from a closed high-pressure vessel, the above steady state equations may be used to approximate the initial mass flow rate. Subsequently, the mass flow rate will decrease during the discharge as the source vessel empties and the pressure in the vessel decreases. Calculating the flow rate versus time since the initiation of the discharge is much more complicated, but more accurate. Two equivalent methods for performing such calculations are explained and compared online.[7]

The technical literature can be very confusing because many authors fail to explain whether they are using the universal gas law constant R which applies to any ideal gas or whether they are using the gas law constant Rs which only applies to a specific individual gas. The relationship between the two constants is Rs = R / M where M is the molecular weight of the gas.

Real gas effects[edit]

If the upstream conditions are such that the gas cannot be treated as ideal, there is no closed form equation for evaluating the choked mass flow. Instead, the gas expansion should be calculated by reference to real gas property tables, where the expansion takes place at constant entropy.

Thin-plate orifices[edit]

The flow of real gases through thin-plate orifices never becomes fully choked. The mass flow rate through the orifice continues to increase as the downstream pressure is lowered to a perfect vacuum, though the mass flow rate increases slowly as the downstream pressure is reduced below the critical pressure.[8] Cunningham (1951) first drew attention to the fact that choked flow will not occur across a standard, thin, square-edged orifice.[9][10][11]

Minimum pressure ratio required for choked flow to occur[edit]

The minimum pressure ratios required for choked conditions to occur (when some typical industrial gases are flowing) are presented in Table 1. The ratios were obtained using the criterion that choked flow occurs when the ratio of the absolute upstream pressure to the absolute downstream pressure is equal to or greater than [ 2/(k + 1) ]-k/(k − 1), where k is the specific heat ratio of the gas. The minimum pressure ratio may be understood as the ratio between the upstream pressure and the pressure at the nozzle throat when the gas is traveling at Mach 1; if the upstream pressure is too low compared to the downstream pressure, sonic flow cannot occur at the throat.

Table 1
Gas k = cp/cv  Minimum
required for
choked flow
Dry Air 1.400 at 20°C 1.893
Nitrogen 1.404 at 15°C
Oxygen 1.400 at 20°C 1.893
Helium 1.660 at 20°C 2.049
Hydrogen 1.410 at 20°C 1.899
Methane 1.307 1.837
Propane 1.131 1.729
Butane 1.096 1.708
Ammonia 1.310 at 15°C 1.838
Chlorine 1.355 1.866
Sulfur dioxide 1.290 at 15°C 1.826
Carbon monoxide 1.404 1.895


  • Pu = absolute upstream gas pressure
  • Pd = absolute downstream gas pressure
  • k values obtained from:
    1. Perry, Robert H. and Green, Don W. (1984). Perry's Chemical Engineers' Handbook, Table 2-166, (6th Edition ed.). McGraw-Hill Company. ISBN 0-07-049479-7. 
    2. Phillips Petroleum Company (1962). Reference Data For Hydrocarbons And Petro-Sulfur Compounds (Second Printing ed.). Phillips Petroleum Company. 

Vacuum conditions[edit]

In the case of upstream air pressure at atmospheric pressure and vacuum conditions downstream of an orifice, both the air velocity and the mass flow rate becomes choked or limited when sonic velocity is reached through the orifice.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Perry's Chemical Engineers' Handbook, Sixth Edition, McGraw-Hill Co., 1984.
  2. ^ a b Handbook of Chemical Hazard Analysis Procedures, Appendix B, Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Dept. of Transportation, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1989. Handbook of Chemical Hazard Analysis, Appendix B Click on PDF icon, wait and then scroll down to page 391 of 520 PDF pages.
  3. ^ a b Methods For The Calculation Of Physical Effects Due To Releases Of Hazardous Substances (Liquids and Gases), PGS2 CPR 14E, Chapter 2, The Netherlands Organization Of Applied Scientific Research, The Hague, 2005. PGS2 CPR 14E
  4. ^ Read page 2 of this brochure.
  5. ^ Control Valve Handbook Search document for "Choked".
  6. ^ Potter & Wiggert, 2010, Mechanics of Fluids, 3rd SI ed., Cengage.
  7. ^ Calculating Accidental Release Rates From Pressurized Gas Systems
  8. ^ Section 3 -- Choked Flow
  9. ^ Forum post on 1 Apr 03 19:37
  10. ^ Cunningham, R.G., "Orifice Meters with Supercritical Compressible Flow" Transactions of the ASME, Vol. 73, pp. 625-638, 1951.
  11. ^ Richard W. Miller (1996). Flow Measurement Engineering Handbook (Third Edition ed.). McGraw Hill. ISBN 0-07-042366-0. 

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