Old meets new to make one of ISU’s newest centers a reality

ComFRE researchers pose in front of an air-water bubble column in the Experimental Multiphase Flow Laboratory.
CoMFRE members pose in front of an air-water bubble column in the Experimental Multiphase Flow Laboratory on Feb. 1, 2018. From left: Ted Heindel (CoMFRE Associate Director, mechanical engineering), Shankar Subramaniam (CoMFRE Director, mechanical engineering), and Rodney Fox (CoMFRE Executive Director, chemical and biological engineering). Photo by Nick Fetty

A new research center at Iowa State is making new and innovative discoveries in one of the campus’s oldest buildings.

The Iowa Board of Regents in December 2017 elected to give official “center” status to the Center for Multiphase Flow Research and Education, also known as CoMFRE. In order to gain the status of “center” (or “institute”), that center (or institute) “shall be well-organized, adequately funded, and appropriately integrated into the university, to support the mission of the university, particularly in the areas of research and public service,” according to the Board Policy Manual.

“Having the status of a center will help provide the credibility when pursuing large grants that require a team with a history,” said Ted Heindel, an associate director of CoMFRE and Bergles Professor of Thermal Science in the mechanical engineering department.  “It also helps with recruiting talented students and faculty because they can see we have a critical mass in the area of multiphase flow research.”

Shankar Subramaniam, a CoMFRE researcher and professor of mechanical engineering, said that having the status of a center helps to give better visibility to the research taking place there.

“It gives us external visibility to both industry wanting to work with CoMFRE faculty and also to other universities who might team with CoMFRE faculty on large center-type grant proposals,” said Subramaniam. “It also establishes our presence internally at ISU. Tracking our accomplishments as a group is also easier with center status.”

A shot of Laboratory of Mechanics around 1912. Marston Water Tower can be seen in the background. Photo courtesy of Iowa State University Library – Special Collections and University Archives

CoMFRE is currently located in the Laboratory of Mechanics on the west side of campus. The building, originally called Engineering Hall, was constructed in 1883 for $4,890. It has seen several renovations and name changes during its time and in 1983 was named to the National Register of Historic Places.

Iowa State University began developing a strong research program in computational fluid dynamics (CFD) during the 1980s. The development of the CFD program can largely be attributed to former mechanical engineering professor Dick Pletcher and former aerospace engineering professor John Tennehill.

In 1980, NASA named Iowa State as the site of one of seven CFD centers of excellence and the center was overseen by Pletcher and Tennehill. The duo – along with then-aerospace engineering professor Dale A. Anderson – also co-authored the textbook Computational Fluid Mechanics and Heat Transfer, which came to be used by more than 90 schools and in 2012 published its third edition. With a firm CFD program established for single-phase flow, Iowa State’s program grew to also include expertise in multiphase flow science including gas-solid, solid-liquid, bubbly and droplet-laden flows, and extended to several faculty who also do experiments.

In 2002, Subramaniam teamed up with chemical and biological engineering professor Rodney Fox and Ames Laboratory researcher David Hoffman to establish a Granular Flow and Kinetics Program which led to the formation of the Granular and Multiphase Systems (GAMS) research group. CoMFRE was established as a research initiative in 2014 with the assistance of the Engineering Research Institute’s Accelerating Collaboration in Research Initiative (ACRI).

“The College of Engineering’s ACRI program operated through the Engineering Research Institute was crucial in terms of providing the seed funding and impetus for the GAMS group to organize its research direction and work more collaboratively together,” said Subramaniam. “This led to new research and also the ability to go after large grant opportunities. Working with the Associate Dean for Research Arun Somani and staff at the ERI including its current Assistant Director Julienne Krennrich and Rachael Voas helped us develop our Industry Membership Program and prepare for center-type federal funding opportunities.”

CoMFRE is currently composed of 18 members from various fields of engineering, including aerospace, chemical and biological, civil, and mechanical, and includes both computational and experimental expertise in multiphase flow research and education.

“Multiphase flows are ubiquitous. They are found in our bodies, in our homes, and in our environment. Having several disciplines represented in CoMFRE just shows the breadth of multiphase flow applications and activity on campus. This further strengthens the credibility when applying for large grants when several disciplines are represented in the research team,” Heindel said.

In addition to having a diverse array of engineering disciplines, CoMFRE also has a mix of older and younger faculty.

“A mix of junior and senior faculty is good for the continued growth of CoMFRE,” said Heindel. “Senior faculty provide credibility, experience, direction, and mentoring to CoMFRE activities, while junior faculty bring new ideas, new application areas, and new techniques to CoMFRE research initiatives.”

While these faculty members typically serve as primary investigators (PIs) on projects, their research teams are often composed of both graduate and undergraduate students.

“The critical mass of multiphase flow researchers brings talented students to ISU who have an interest in multiphase flows,” said Heindel. “Also the students from multiphase research teams interact with and help each other, which adds to the student research experience.”

Much like the purpose of Iowa State University at its founding was to help Iowans and contribute to the state, CoMFRE strives to advance this part of the university’s original mission.

“Multiphase flows are found in medical applications from blood flow to drug manufacturing and delivery. Food stuffs and consumer products also involve multiphase flow which affect people,” said Heindel. “Multiphase flows are also found in agricultural and biomass processing, as well as water and air quality applications. Hence, CoMFRE activities will benefit the people in the state of Iowa, and will reach far beyond the state boundaries.”


More about Ted Heindel’s Research
Dr. Heindel directs the Experimental Multiphase Flow Laboratory at ISU, which houses a unique instrument for performing X-ray visualization studies of multiphase flows. His research currently focuses on multiphase flow hydrodynamics (e.g., mixing in gas-liquid, gas-solid, and gas-liquid-solid flows), multiphase flow visualization and characterization using X-ray imaging technology, and particle-particle mixing. This work has applications in petroleum-based and bio-based chemical and fuel processing, energy generation, food processing, agricultural waste management, pulp and paper processing, mineral processing, and wastewater treatment. Current projects address spray formation and dispersion, biomass processing, particle mixing, and air entrainment.


More about Shankar Subramaniam’s Research
Dr. Subramaniam and members of his research group work on theory, modeling and simulation of turbulent multiphase flow. They perform computer simulations of heat and mass transfer in flow around many solid particles or bubbles to understand how heat and mass are transferred between the phases. This understanding leads to more accurate models of these flows, which in turn lead to better prediction and control. The group’s ultimate goal is to tell a particle, droplet or bubble, or groups of them, where to go and what to do, so they can achieve efficient, sustainable and environmentally friendly multiphase processes for energy generation through biomass fast pyrolysis, CO2 capture, pharmaceutical manufacture and transportation. Wastewater treatment and agricultural waste management are also applications of recent interest.