College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Rodney Fox uses NSF funding to create cost-effective computer simulations

Rodney Fox

With four current projects supported by the National Science Foundation, Rodney Fox—Anson Marston Distinguished Professor of Engineering and professor of chemical and biological engineering—has spent many years developing his work with multiphase flow computer simulations.

Fox, an associate scientist at Ames Laboratory, and his research team create models and numerical methods for simulations. Since they produce ideas and algorithms rather than finished products, their work is continuous. “We build tools that can be used in anything, any product,” said Fox.

“Ten years from now, people will be citing our research, and our tools will be used in commercial CFD codes and licensed to users,” he added. “Then we’ll move on to something more complicated and try to add more value.”Rodney Fox

The research began with relatively simple single-phase flow with chemical reactions in a liquid or in a gas and progressed to multiphase flow, which deals with fluid-solid or liquid-solid-gas reacting flows. Fox said these flows are more difficult to model because the underlying physics is more complicated.

Fox has been doing chemical reactor simulations for about 25 years, starting with his Ph.D. in computer simulation. As technology advanced, computing equipment became widespread and companies developed an interest in using computer simulations to understand systems and processes.

The simulations developed by Fox and his teams are a cost-effective way to simulate the different processes that companies use and create. His work is particularly useful to the energy and chemical industries, used by companies such as BP, ExxonMobil, Conoco Phillips and others.

One way those companies can utilize Fox’s research is to make it easier to reproduce small-scale to large-scale changes without spending the time and money needed to build pilot-scale products.

“When you change scales, the things that control how something works also change,” said Fox. “In a beaker it’s very easy to mix well, but what works in a beaker might not work in a large-scale plant, so it’s easier to do computer simulations because you have a model that can understand what needs to be changed to work on a bigger scale.”

Using simulations like this, companies can save money by making cost-saving improvements to current processes. Another benefit is the potential to make current production processes more environmentally friendly.

Fox said soot is a common pollutant found in car engines, and using computer simulations to understand how to redesign an engine in a way that doesn’t produce soot is much more cost-effective than physically building different experimental engines to test performance.

The simulation codes Fox creates are all done in open source, meaning they are distributed to anyone who wants to use them. But since they are freely available, Fox’s team doesn’t support individual users once they’re published.

“We won’t spend our time telling you how to use them, but we’ll let you have them, develop them and use them wherever you want,” said Fox.