Streamlines, streaklines, and pathlines
Fluid flow is characterized by a velocity vector field in three-dimensional space, within the framework of continuum mechanics. Streamlines, streaklines, and pathlines are field lines resulting from this vector field description of the flow. They differ only when the flow changes with time: that is, when the flow is not steady. 
- Streamlines are a family of curves that are instantaneously tangent to the velocity vector of the flow. These show the direction a massless fluid element will travel in at any point in time.
- Streaklines are the locus of points of all the fluid particles that have passed continuously through a particular spatial point in the past. Dye steadily injected into the fluid at a fixed point extends along a streakline.
- Pathlines are the trajectories that individual fluid particles follow. These can be thought of as "recording" the path of a fluid element in the flow over a certain period. The direction the path takes will be determined by the streamlines of the fluid at each moment in time.
- Timelines are the lines formed by a set of fluid particles that were marked at a previous instant in time, creating a line or a curve that is displaced in time as the particles move.
By definition, different streamlines at the same instant in a flow do not intersect, because a fluid particle cannot have two different velocities at the same point. Similarly, streaklines cannot intersect themselves or other streaklines, because two particles cannot be present at the same location at the same instant of time; unless the origin point of one of the streaklines also belongs to the streakline of the other origin point. However, pathlines are allowed to intersect themselves or other pathlines (except the starting and end points of the different pathlines, which need to be distinct).
Streamlines and timelines provide a snapshot of some flowfield characteristics, whereas streaklines and pathlines depend on the full time-history of the flow. However, often sequences of timelines (and streaklines) at different instants—being presented either in a single image or with a video stream—may be used to provide insight in the flow and its history.
If a line, curve or closed curve is used as start point for a continuous set of streamlines, the result is a stream surface. In the case of a closed curve in a steady flow, fluid that is inside a stream surface must remain forever within that same stream surface, because the streamlines are tangent to the flow velocity. A scalar function whose contour lines define the streamlines is known as the stream function.
Dye line may refer either to a streakline: dye released gradually from a fixed location during time; or it may refer to a timeline: a line of dye applied instantaneously at a certain moment in time, and observed at a later instant.
Streamlines are defined by
If the components of the velocity are written and those of the streamline as we deduce
which shows that the curves are parallel to the velocity vector. Here is a variable which parametrizes the curve Streamlines are calculated instantaneously, meaning that at one instance of time they are calculated throughout the fluid from the instantaneous flow velocity field.
Pathlines are defined by
The suffix indicates that we are following the motion of a fluid particle. Note that at point the curve is parallel to the flow velocity vector , where the velocity vector is evaluated at the position of the particle at that time .
Streaklines can be expressed as,
where, is the velocity of a particle at location and time . The parameter , parametrizes the streakline and , where is a time of interest.
In steady flow (when the velocity vector-field does not change with time), the streamlines, pathlines, and streaklines coincide. This is because when a particle on a streamline reaches a point, , further on that streamline the equations governing the flow will send it in a certain direction . As the equations that govern the flow remain the same when another particle reaches it will also go in the direction . If the flow is not steady then when the next particle reaches position the flow would have changed and the particle will go in a different direction.
This is useful, because it is usually very difficult to look at streamlines in an experiment. However, if the flow is steady, one can use streaklines to describe the streamline pattern.
Streamlines are frame-dependent. That is, the streamlines observed in one inertial reference frame are different from those observed in another inertial reference frame. For instance, the streamlines in the air around an aircraft wing are defined differently for the passengers in the aircraft than for an observer on the ground. When possible, fluid dynamicists try to find a reference frame in which the flow is steady, so that they can use experimental methods of creating streaklines to identify the streamlines. In the aircraft example, the observer on the ground will observe unsteady flow, and the observers in the aircraft will observe steady flow, with constant streamlines.
Knowledge of the streamlines can be useful in fluid dynamics. For example, Bernoulli's principle, which describes the relationship between pressure and velocity in an inviscid fluid, is derived for locations along a streamline.
The curvature of a streamline is related to the pressure gradient acting perpendicular to the streamline. The center of curvature of the streamline lies in the direction of decreasing radial pressure. The magnitude of the radial pressure gradient can be calculated directly from the density of the fluid, the curvature of the streamline and the local velocity.
Engineers often use dyes in water or smoke in air in order to see streaklines, from which pathlines can be calculated. Streaklines are identical to streamlines for steady flow. Further, dye can be used to create timelines. The patterns guide their design modifications, aiming to reduce the drag. This task is known as streamlining, and the resulting design is referred to as being streamlined. Streamlined objects and organisms, like steam locomotives, streamliners, cars and dolphins are often aesthetically pleasing to the eye. The Streamline Moderne style, an 1930s and 1940s offshoot of Art Deco, brought flowing lines to architecture and design of the era. The canonical example of a streamlined shape is a chicken egg with the blunt end facing forwards. This shows clearly that the curvature of the front surface can be much steeper than the back of the object. Most drag is caused by eddies in the fluid behind the moving object, and the objective should be to allow the fluid to slow down after passing around the object, and regain pressure, without forming eddies.
The same terms have since become common vernacular to describe any process that smooths an operation. For instance, it is common to hear references to streamlining a business practice, or operation.
- Drag coefficient
- Equipotential surface
- Flow visualization
- Potential flow around a circular cylinder
- Scientific visualization
- Stream function
Notes and references
- Batchelor, G. (2000). Introduction to Fluid Mechanics.
- Kundu P and Cohen I. Fluid Mechanics.
- Granger, R.A. (1995). Fluid Mechanics. Dover Publications. ISBN 0-486-68356-7., pp. 422–425.
- "Flow visualisation" (RealMedia). National Committee for Fluid Mechanics Films (NCFMF). Retrieved 2009-04-20.