The dynamics of unsteady flow in the human large airways during a rapid inhalation were investigated using highly detailed large-scale computational fluid dynamics on a subject-specific geometry. The simulations were performed to resolve all the spatial and temporal scales of the flow, thanks to the use of massive computational resources. A highly parallel finite element code was used, running on two supercomputers, solving the transient incompressible Navier-Stokes equations on unstructured meshes. Given that the finest mesh contained 350 million elements, the study sets a precedent for large-scale simulations of the respiratory system, proposing an analysis strategy for mean flow, fluctuations and wall shear stresses on a rapid and short inhalation (a so-called sniff). The geometry used encompasses the exterior face and the airways from the nasal cavity, through the trachea and up to the third lung bifurcation; it was derived from a contrast-enhanced computed tomography (CT) scan of a 48-year-old male. The transient inflow produces complex flows over a wide range of Reynolds numbers (Re). Thanks to the high fidelity simulations, many features involving the flow transition were observed, with the level of turbulence clearly higher in the throat than in the nose. Spectral analysis revealed turbulent characteristics persisting downstream of the glottis, and were captured even with a medium mesh resolution. However a fine mesh resolution was found necessary in the nasal cavity to observe transitional features. This work indicates the potential of large-scale simulations to further understanding of airway physiological mechanics, which is essential to guide clinical diagnosis; better understanding of the flow also has implications for the design of interventions such as aerosol drug delivery.
- inspiratory flow
- respiratory airflow