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Designing better planes with supercomputing

Fluid vortices rolling off a spinning sphere, from Dr Calabretto's research. Understanding the way fluid moves over a rotating sphere has implications for the behaviour of air flowing over an aircraft

Fluid vortices rolling off a spinning sphere, from Dr Calabretto’s research. Understanding the way fluid moves over a rotating sphere has implications for the behaviour of air flowing over an aircraft

Next time you look out the window of a plane, or watch a cloud form overhead, spare a thought for the complex equations that govern every gust of wind, turbulence and motion you see.

Understanding these movements, and therefore working out how to design faster, more fuel-efficient planes, relies on a deep understanding of fluid motion.

The movement of fluids like air, blood and water as they travel around objects remains quite a mysterious phenomenon.

Since the 19th Century, we have understood the basic physical equations that govern fluid flow.

However, these equations do not have simple solutions capable of dealing with complex real-world cases of fluid motion such as swirling eddies in the Southern Ocean or turbulence patterns in the blood around spinning platelets.

Dr Sophie Calabretto from Macquarie University uses the NCI supercomputer’s tremendous computational power to work through such equations to generate a high-resolution view of the intricacies of interacting fluids. That data provides the basis for future work into airplane design, turbulence analysis and water flow.

“Without the NCI supercomputer, I wouldn’t be able to do my job,” says Dr Calabretto.

“We need huge computational power to actually solve these problems; problems that mathematics alone can’t solve anymore.”

The implications of this research are clear: getting to grips with the behaviour of fast-moving fluids opens up new possibilities for designing planes, cars and boats. It also helps improve our weather models, leading to more accurate and more reliable forecasts.

NCI’s supercomputer supports research from the pure sciences all the way to industrial applications, because each one is a key part of Australia’s scientific landscape.

Research looking at the fundamentals of scientific issues creates the foundation for important developments later on, with major benefits for industry and applied sciences.

Without the core understanding of fluid flow that research like Dr Calabretto’s brings us, future developments in vehicle design may be stymied.

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