Direct numerical simulations of the motion of up to 216 three-dimensional buoyant bubbles in periodic domains are presented. The full Navier–Stokes equations are solved by a parallelized finite-difference/front-tracking method that allows a deformable interface between the bubbles and the suspending fluid and the inclusion of surface tension. The governing parameters are selected such that the average rise Reynolds number is about 12–30, depending on the void fraction; deformations of the bubbles are small. Although the motion of the individual bubbles is unsteady, the simulations are carried out for a sufficient time that the average behaviour of the system is well defined. Simulations with different numbers of bubbles are used to explore the dependence of the statistical quantities on the size of the system. Examination of the microstructure of the bubbles reveals that the bubbles are dispersed approximately homogeneously through the flow field and that pairs of bubbles tend to align horizontally. The dependence of the statistical properties of the flow on the void fraction is analysed. The dispersion of the bubbles and the fluctuation characteristics, or ‘pseudo-turbulence’, of the liquid phase are examined in Part 2.
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