VOF – What’s in a Name?

VOF – What’s in a Name?

Table of Contents

In CFD, a free surface is an interface between a liquid and a gas in which the gas can only apply a pressure on the liquid. Free surfaces are generally excellent approximations when the ratio of liquid to gas densities is large, e.g., for water to air the ratio is 1000.

VOF Method Components

In FLOW-3D free surfaces are modeled with the Volume of Fluid (VOF) technique, which was first reported in Nichols and Hirt (1975), and more completely in Hirt and Nichols (1981). The VOF method consists of three ingredients: a scheme to locate the surface, an algorithm to track the surface as a sharp interface moving through a computational grid, and a means of applying boundary conditions at the surface.

Pseudo VOF

In the past, a number of commercial CFD programs have claimed a VOF capability, when in reality they are only implementing one or two of the three VOF ingredients. Users of these programs should be aware that these pseudo-VOF schemes sometimes give incorrect results.

Most pseudo-VOF methods use a fluid volume fraction to locate surfaces, but they then attempt to compute flow in both the liquid and gas regions instead of accounting for the gas by a boundary condition. This practice produces an incorrect motion of the surface since it is assumed to move with the average velocity of gas and liquid. In reality, the two fluids generally move independently of one another except for a thin viscous boundary layer.

VOF - What' in a name
Left: Correct jet shape predicted by TruVOF technique used in FLOW-3D. Right: Incorrect jet shape predicted by pseudo-VOF technique used by other CFD codes.
Comparing VOF methods
Left: FLOW-3D‘s TruVOF technique predicts jet impingement on wall and some outflow. Right: Pseudo-VOF methods don’t predict realistic jetting of fluid on side walls.

VOF vs. Pseudo VOF Example

The consequences of trying to compute both gas and liquid flow can be illustrated with a simple example. All the computed results shown here were produced with FLOW-3D, which has a two-fluid option that can be run in a pseudo-VOF mode. Imagine a jet of water issuing at constant velocity from a long slit into air. If we neglect gravity and keep the velocity of the jet low (say 10.0 cm/s), we expect the jet to move more or less unimpeded by the air (see the FLOW-3D results in Fig. 1), obtained with its VOF free-surface model).

Pseudo-VOF methods produce a growth at the tip of the jet (Fig. 2). This growth is numerical, not physical, because it is independent of the density of air (e.g., the growth remains largely unchanged for air densities 100, 1000 and 10,000 times smaller than the liquid density).

At later times the FLOW-3D jet (Fig. 3) strikes the right-hand wall and a small portion of the flow has entered a slot in the wall.

In contrast, the lower density air flow in the pseudo-VOF method is pulling liquid into the slot just before the jet strikes the wall (Fig. 4). Also, because of the incompressibility of the air remaining in the chamber, the amount of liquid flowing out the slot in the pseudo-VOF method must be equal to the amount injected, which is more than would be expected under most physical conditions.

Another pseudo-VOF practice is to use some type of higher-order advection scheme to track interfaces. The interface is represented as a rapid change in density. Such schemes result in smoothed transition regions between gas and liquid that cover several control volumes rather than sharp interfaces localized in one control volume as in the original VOF method. The reason that most people don’t implement free-surface boundary conditions is that it requires major changes to the structure of existing programs, and it must be done carefully to avoid numerical instabilities.

FLOW-3D has all the ingredients recommended for the successful treatment of free surfaces. Moreover, it incorporates major improvements beyond the original VOF method in each of its three major ingredients.


Nichols, B.D. and Hirt, C.W., “Methods for Calculating Multi-Dimensional, Transient Free Surface Flows Past Bodies,” Proc. First Intern. Conf. Num. Ship Hydrodynamics, Gaithersburg, ML, Oct. 20-23, 1975

Hirt, C.W. and Nichols, B.D., “Volume of Fluid (VOF) Method for the Dynamics of Free Boundaries,” Journal of Computational Physics 39, 201, 1981.

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