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Q & A: Cigar Smoke and Fluid Dynamics

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Most recent answer: 11/03/2011
Why does smoke curl out of the cigar? Does the smoke have pressure from the air? What kind of movement does the smoke have?
- obgwun
chonbuk university, chonju, kores
Obgwun -

Your question is a very tough one, and we can't tell you the exact answer because we just don't know. We have talked a bit with a local expert in non-linear dynamics, and here is what he had to say: "In convection patterns the flow lines near the center of the upward draft are often chaotic even if the flow is laminar. I could imagine that this might be quite typical for cigar smoke but I have never studied cigar smoke."

We will try to find a better answer to this excellent question, so please be patient.

-Mike [see answer to follow-up question below]

One possible answer to this question is given below. But like the expert above said, this may not be right...

The way that gases like smoke move is part of a science known as 'fluid dynamics'. (Smoke isn't really a gas in the strict definition of the word, but in this case, you can safely think of it that way.) Fluid dynamics is a very complicated thing to study because there are so many different things that can influence how something like smoke will move (which is why this answer may not be correct). Another part of fluid dynamics is studying how liquids like water move, and they often work the same way as gases. So before I explain the answer to your question, let me explain something a little simpler. Try going to your kitchen sink and turning on the water. As the water falls,  gravity makes it speed up. The water that is close to the faucet flows very smoothly. This smooth flow is called 'laminar flow' and requires that the different parts of the fluid be moving slowly with respect to each other, as they do near to the faucet. But farther down, the flow of the water becomes very rough and convoluted. This is called 'turbulent flow'. Turbulent flow occurs when parts of the fluid move quickly with respect to each other. Now on to the cigar smoke... The smoke that comes out of a cigar is extremely warm, and it is being continually heated by the cigar itself. I expect that you have heard of the phrase 'warm air rises'. As the smoke rises higher and higher, it speeds up. Close to the cigar, when it first comes out, the smoke's flow is very smooth, or laminar. But since it's speeding up as it rises, it will eventually reach a speed at which its flow becomes turbulent. [The speed up should vary a lot from the middle of the plume out to the sluggish edges.] This is when you see the smoke spreading out and curling around. To go into more detail than this about the exact nature of the turbulent flow would require a pretty solid understanding of fluid dynamics. And in some cases, it can actually be impossible to predict everything that happens. But I think that this should be enough for what you're looking for.

-Tamara [some mods by mw]

(published on 10/22/2007)

Follow-Up #1: smoke flow turning turbulent

Initially when smoke comes from cigar its flow is uniform or laminar but as the smoke rises upward why the smoke coils or distributes randomly? And why the velocity of smoke increases as it rises upward?
- Safran (age 17)
The velocity should increase because the hot smoky region is less dense than the cooler air around it. As a result there's a net upward buoyant force on it, like on a helium balloon, causing an upward acceleration. So it should briefly speed up.

Of course the hottest middle part of the plume speeds up the most. Toward the edges, the velocity gets closer to that of the surrounding air. This change of velocity from place to place, called shear, is what can drive turbulence. Whether the flow stays smooth (laminar) or turns turbulent depends on a quantity called the Reynolds number, which involves the shear, the size of the region, and the viscosity of the fluid.

Mike W.

(published on 11/03/2011)

Follow-up on this answer.