HPC Takes on Real World Problems, Large and Small

Size or scope doesn't matter for High Performance Computing (HPC) research. HPC creates scenarios and data applicable to the largest scale imaginable, as well as the smallest observable micron. In the latter sense, scientists like Distinguished Professor Rodney Fox are using HPC to look at the ways tiny particles affect our everyday lives--and how we can use this knowledge to our advantage.

"We are interested in multiphase flow. Flow means liquids or gases, and multiphase means there is more than one phase, like water drops and air or solid particles and air," Fox said.

Rodney Fox, Anson Marston Distinguished Professor, Chemical & Biological Engineering, Iowa State

Dust storms, volcanic eruptions and turbulence patterns are examples of multiphase flows that Fox studies. When a 2010 volcanic eruption in Iceland caused planes to be temporarily grounded, research like his helped determine movement patterns of volcanic ash and how to react accordingly.

"In particular, with HPC, we're looking at multiphase flows where particles are falling through air like raindrops. We're interested in simulations that can be used to create simpler models for the fluid dynamics," Fox said.

Terms like particles, clusters and turbulence are common in Fox's field. With the raindrops example, Fox analyzes the statistical properties of how bits of condensation (particles) are affected by turbulence as they fall, eventually becoming clusters that we know as raindrops by the time they reach Earth.

The simulation process using HPC takes around a week for a typical run, and the results are used in a variety of ways.

"For example," Fox said, "our data could be used to help analyze how air and dust is affected by a helicopter's gust, or how a spray of fuel inside a diesel engine works."

Equations are just as important as visual models for Fox and his student research team. Sometimes the formulas are already known; sometimes they need to be written and tested before the team can proceed. Fox said that everyone has a role. "We use HPC and multiphase flow equations to gain insight into things we need to model," Fox said.

Fox and his team then publish their findings, allowing other scientists (or even companies like BP and Chevron Phillips) access to the research.

"It's like doing experiments, but in a way that is otherwise nearly impossible," Fox said.