Journal of Fluid Mechanics


Experimental study of flow fields in an airway closure model

S. BIANa1 c1, C.-F. TAIa1, D. HALPERNa2, Y. ZHENGa1 and J. B. GROTBERGa1

a1 Department of Biomedical Engineering, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, USA

a2 Department of Mathematics, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487, USA


The liquid lining in small human airways can become unstable and form liquid plugs that close off the airways. Bench-top experiments have been performed in a glass capillary tube as a model airway to study the airway instability and the flow-induced stresses on the airway walls. A microscale particle image velocimetry system is used to visualize quantitatively the flow fields during the dynamic process of airway closure. An annular film is formed by injecting low-viscosity Si-oil into the glycerol-filled capillary tube. The viscosity ratio between these two fluids is similar to that between water and air. The thickness of the film varies with the infusion rate of the core fluid, which is controlled by a syringe pump. After a uniform film is formed, the syringe pump is shut off so that the core flow speed is close to zero during closure. Instantaneous velocity fields in the annular film at various stages of airway closure are computed from the images and analysed. The wall shear stress at the instant when a liquid plug forms is found to be approximately one order of magnitude higher than the exponential growth period before closure. Within the short time span of the closure process, there are large wall shear stress fluctuations. Furthermore, dramatic velocity changes in the film flow during closure indicate a steep normal stress gradient on the airway wall. The experimental results show that the wall shear stress during closure can be high enough to injure airway epithelial cells. An airway that experiences closure and reopening cyclically during breathing could be injured from fluid forces during both phases of the cycle (i.e. inspiration and expiration).

(Received September 25 2009)

(Revised December 18 2009)

(Accepted December 28 2009)


c1 Email address for correspondence:

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