A century-old problem in the physics of aerodynamics, known to scientists as fluid dynamics, has been solved by MIT scientists, both on paper and in the lab. The breakthrough makes it possible to calculate when the otherwise smooth flow of air over a complex surface will cease and separate, hugely affecting aerodynamic drag and lift on, for example, a vehicle.

Previous solutions had been largely theoretical, and required low speeds, perfectly two-dimensional surfaces and ideal conditions. Such features are nowhere to be found in the real world, so the MIT breakthrough is a major step forward in understanding - and therefore dealing with - how air flows around objects in three-dimensional, real-world conditions.

The man at the head of the project, George Haller, developed the theory along with several other professors and students in a two-dimensional format in 2004. Since then they have been working on expanding that theory to three dimensions, and the latest results are the culmination of the last four years' work. The mathematical calculations had to be tested experimentally to verify that they were more than internally consistent, however, the work of MIT colleague Thomas Peacock has now done that as well.

While the science of the breakthrough is beyond the grasp of lay people, the implications are clear: by being able to anticipate when, where, and under what conditions, the flow of air around a car will begin to separate, engineers can design around the problems of drag and lift to produce more efficient vehicles. That would mean either reduced fuel consumption, high speeds with the same amount of power, or potentially both.

The scientists behind the new findings are quick to point out that the findings are still young, and it will take time to determine how much it could affect performance or efficiency in cars or other vehicles.

"This is the tip of the iceberg, but we've shown that this theory works," Peacock said.