All that is necessary to create lift is
to turn a flow of air. We are familiar with the lift generated by an
airplane wing or a curving
baseball. But a simple rotating cylinder will also create lift.
In fact, because the flow field associated with a rotating cylinder
is two dimensional, it is much easier to understand the basic physics
of this problem than the more complex three dimensional aspects of a
However, the details of how a rotating cylinder creates lift
are still pretty complex. Next to any surface, the
molecules of the air will stick to the surface as discussed in the
properties of air slide. This
of molecules will entrain or pull the surrounding flow in the
direction that the surface moves. If we put a cylinder that is
rotating about the longitudinal axis (a line perpendicular to
the circular cross section) into a fluid, it would eventually create
a spinning, vortex-like flow around the cylinder. If we then set the
fluid in motion, the uniform velocity flow field can be added to the
vortex flow. The right part of the slide shows a view of the flow as
if we were moving with the cylinder looking down the longitudinal
axis. The cylinder appears stationary and the flow
moves from left to right. The cylinder rotates clockwise. So the
free stream flow over the top of the cylinder is assisted by the
induced flow; the free stream flow below the cylinder is opposed by
the induced flow. The streamlines
around the cylinder are distorted because of the spinning. If the
cylinder were not spinning, the streamlines would be symmetric top
and bottom. The net turning of the flow has produced an upward
force. Because of the change to the
velocity field, the pressure field will also be altered around the
cylinder. The magnitude of the force can be computed
by integrating the surface pressure times the area around the
cylinder. The direction of the force is perpendicular to the flow
The magnitude of the force was determined by two early
aerodynamicists, Kutta in Germany and Joukowski in Russia. The lift
equation for a rotating cylinder bears their names. The equation states
lift L per unit length along the cylinder is directly proportional to
the velocity V of the flow, the density r of the flow, and the strength
of the vortex G that is established by the rotation.
L = r * V * G
The equation gives
lift-per-unit length because the flow is two dimensional. (Obviously,
the longer the cylinder the greater the lift.) Determining the vortex
strength G takes a little more math.
The vortex strength equals the rotational speed Vr times the circumference
of the cylinder. If b is the radius of the cylinder,
G = 2.0 * pi * b * Vr
where pi =3.14159.
The rotational speed Vr is equal to the circumference of the
cylinder times the spin s of the cylinder.
Vr = 2.0 * pi * b * s
Let's investigate the lift of a rotating cylinder by using a Java
The left window shows an edge view of a cylinder placed in a flow of air.
The cylinder is two feet in diameter and 20 feet long and the air is flowing
past this cylinder at 100 miles per hour.
You can rotate the cylinder by using the slider below the view
window or by backspacing over the input box, typing in your new value and
hitting the Enter key on the keyboard. On the right is a graph of the lift
The red dot shows your conditions. Below the graph is the
numerical value of the lift. You can display either the lift value (in
English or Metric units) or the lift coefficient by using the choice
buttons surrounding the output box. Click on the choice button and select
from the drop-menu.
As an experiment, set the spin to 100 rpm (revolutions per minute) and
note the amount of lift. Now increase the spin to 200 rpm.
Did the lift increase or decrease?
Set the spin to -100 rpm. What is the value of lift?
Which way would this cylinder move?
You can download your own copy of the program to run off-line by clicking on this button:
The file containing the program is in .zip format. You must "Extract" the files to run the
program off-line. Click on "Foil.html" to launch the program.
You can further investigate the lift of a cylinder, and a variety of
other shapes by using the
FoilSim II Java Applet.
You can also
your own copy of FoilSim to play with
WARNING: Be particularly aware of the simplifying
assumptions that have gone into this analysis. This type of flow field
is called an ideal
flow field. It is produced by superimposing the flow field from an
ideal vortex centered in the cylinder with a uniform free stream
flow. There is no viscosity in this model
on the cylinder) even though this is the real
origin of the circulating flow! In reality, the flow around a
rotating cylinder is very complex. Depending on the ratio of
rotational speed, free stream speed, viscosity of the fluid, and size
of the cylinder, the flow off the rear of the cylinder can separate
and become unsteady. BUT, the simplified model does give the
first order effects; it gives an initial good prediction of the force
on the cylinder when compared to experiments.
In the early 1920's the force from a rotating cylinder was used to
power a sailing ship. The idea, proposed by Anton Flettner of Germany,
was to replace the
mast and cloth sails with a large cylinder rotated by an engine below
deck. The idea worked, but the propulsion force generated was less
than the motor would have generated if it had been connected to a
standard marine propeller! Here's a picture of the ship provided by
Brian Adkins, BAE, Georgia Tech, 1993.
Jaques Cousteau and the Cousteau Society proposed a similar ship, named
Calypso II, to explore this and other oceanographic technologies in the 1990's.