Illinois launches $16 million center for simulating plasma-controlled combustion

By Kim Gudeman, PCI   ::   07/08/2013 - 14:26

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will receive $16 million to fund a new center that will leverage extreme-scale computing to predict how plasmas could be used to control combustion. The research may pave the way for cleaner-burning combustors and more reliable and higher performance jet engines.

Image created by coaxial plasma gun
Image created by coaxial plasma gun
The Center for Exascale Simulation of Plasma-Coupled Combustion will be funded for five years by the National Nuclear Security Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Energy. The center, one of three Multidisciplinary Simulation Centers funded through NNSA’s Predictive Science Academic Alliance Program II, comprises of researchers from Illinois and the Ohio State University.

“This would be a whole new mode of managing combustion,” said William Gropp, the principal investigator on the grant and director of Illinois' Parallel Computing Institute, which administers the new center. “We aim to make breakthroughs in this emerging field at the basic science level that ultimately lead to a greener world.”

In a normal combustion event, many steps occur between the spark and the firing of an engine. Control of the intermediary steps is not possible with current technology. However, plasma – a gas that is transformed into a new state of matter when its atoms are ionized– has properties that enable intervention at intermediary steps. Plasma can create the same chemical species that occur during normal combustions and also can produce heat during the different phases, making the chemical process happen faster.

By using plasmas as a control mechanism, researchers believe they can manage the chemical process, thereby reducing emissions of greenhouse gases into the environment. Plasmas could also help stabilize flames for hypersonic, high-speed jet engines, in which air passes through so fast that the flame can be extinguished.

But understanding just how to manage plasma is a difficult problem, requiring three-dimensional, fluid computer simulations that can cover many space and time scales. To make reliable predictions, researchers need scalable computational resources to model and analyze the physics components, which range from flow turbulence to electrodynamics.

“You have to be able to understand what’s happening at the atomic scale all the way up to the bulk flow in the plasma, which you can measure with a ruler,” said Gropp, the Siebel Chair in Computer Science at Illinois. “We can’t do this as one big computation, so we have to create new techniques that will help us stitch everything together.”

The efforts will include the development of new technologies for heterogeneous petascale and exascale systems. Computer scientists and engineers will create better tools for managing efficient data structures, mitigate the irregularities that come with both extreme-scale computing and the fluid nature of the chemical processes, develop novel computational and programming tools for mapping hardware architectures, and design simulation models specifically for turbulence, combustion, plasma dynamics and the electro-chemical properties of surfaces.

Plasma flame with cross flow
Plasma flame with cross flow
The Center is part of the Coordinated Science Laboratory, a multidisciplinary research laboratory in Illinois’ No. 5-ranked College of Engineering and home to the Parallel Computing Institute. The center is a joint initiative between the Lab and Illinois’ Computational Science & Engineering program, with CSE efforts led by Professor Jonathan Freund, who will orchestrate the simulations.

“This work will uniquely combine multiphysics, mulitscale analysis and uncertainty quantification and advance the state-of-art in all of these areas,” said Professor Narayana Aluru, director of the computational science and engineering program. “We are also excited that this Center will further the educational mission of the University of Illinois through the training of new graduate students in CSE and the development of new computational and engineering courses.”

The Illinois researchers hail from aerospace engineering, chemistry, computational science and engineering, computer science, electrical and computer engineering and mechanical science and engineering. The Ohio State investigators are experts in plasma-assisted combustion, kinetics and experimental diagnostic techniques.

“The Center brings together two areas of expertise – high performance computing and physics-based modeling – that are synonymous with the excellence of our campus,” said Illinois Provost Ilesanmi Adesida. “The Center will contribute immensely to predictive science in combustion and beyond.”

Established by Congress in 2000, NNSA is a semi-autonomous agency within the U.S. Department of Energy responsible for enhancing national security through the military application of nuclear science. NNSA maintains and enhances the safety, security, reliability and performance of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile without nuclear testing; works to reduce global danger from weapons of mass destruction; provides the U.S. Navy with safe and effective nuclear propulsion; and responds to nuclear and radiological emergencies in the U.S. and abroad.