In physics, a fluid is a substance that continually deforms (flows) under an applied shear stress, or external force. Fluids are a phase of matter and include liquids, gases and plasmas. They are substances with zero shear modulus, or, in simpler terms, substances which cannot resist any shear force applied to them.
Although the term "fluid" includes both the liquid and gas phases, in common usage, "fluid" is often used as a synonym for "liquid", with no implication that gas could also be present. This colloquial usage of the term is also common in medicine and in nutrition ("take plenty of fluids").
Liquids form a free surface (that is, a surface not created by the container) while gases do not. Viscoelastic fluids like Silly Putty appear to behave similar to a solid when a sudden force is applied. Also substances with a very high viscosity such as pitch appear to behave like a solid (see pitch drop experiment).
Fluids display properties such as:
These properties are typically a function of their inability to support a shear stress in static equilibrium. In contrast, solids respond to shear either with a spring-like restoring force, which means that deformations are reversible, or they require a certain initial stress before they deform (see plasticity).
Solids respond with restoring forces to both shear stresses, and to normal stresses—both compressive and tensile. In contrast, ideal fluids only respond with restoring forces to normal stresses, called pressure: fluids can be subjected to both compressive stress, corresponding to positive pressure, and to tensile stress, corresponding to negative pressure. Both solids and liquids also have tensile strengths, which when exceeded in solids makes irreversible deformation and fracture, and in liquids causes the onset of cavitation.
Both solids and liquids have free surfaces, which cost some amount of free energy to form. In the case of solids, the amount of free energy to form a given unit of surface area is called surface energy, whereas for liquids the same quantity is called surface tension. The ability of liquids to flow results in different behaviour in response to surface tension than in solids, although in equilibrium both will try to minimise their surface energy: liquids tend to form rounded droplets, whereas pure solids tend to form crystals. Gases do not have free surfaces, and freely diffuse.
In a solid, shear stress is a function of strain, but in a fluid, shear stress is a function of strain rate. A consequence of this behavior is Pascal's law which describes the role of pressure in characterizing a fluid's state.
Depending on the relationship between shear stress, and the rate of strain and its derivatives, fluids can be characterized as one of the following: