Harnessing Energy Through Simulation

Maybe you’ve never thought about it, but we are living on a spaceship called Earth. It’s a big one, with more than 7 billion people on board, traveling at about 108,000 Km/h (67,500 mph) in the solar system, while spinning in such a way that, if you are on the equator line, you are moving at more than 1,700 Km/h (1,000 mph). Amazing, isn’t it?

image of ozone hole NASA

The ozone hole max is on Sept. 22, 2012. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

In our travel through the universe, we are protected from outer space by our pressurized canopy: a 12 Km-thick barrier limited by an ozone layer that acts as a shield against radiation and small asteroids. It also allows us to breathe fresh air. It’s a very complex ship, with systems designed to provide the passengers (us) with anything we need to have a very pleasant journey: food, energy, water and fun. But it was designed 4.5 billion years ago, and there were no human beings at that time asking for so much energy to cool down their houses in summer, heat them up in winter, drive a big car, fly in a plane, or produce goods.

We have now reached the point where the energy generated by our starship is not enough to satisfy our demands, and we can easily see how these requests will go on growing at the same pace (or more) as emerging countries raise their standards of living. We definitely have a problem. We have two ways to solve this problem, and they should probably run in parallel: Find new ways to produce energy, and learn how to save it.

Working with simulation technology, I’ve seen how scientists and engineers work on different projects all over the world with the goal of harnessing the power of the sun, the wind, even the ocean waves. Whether R&D teams are pursuing revolutionary ideas or developing something more classic, I find it incredible to watch how they push toward optimization, exploring thousands of different design hypotheses before finding the perfect one. And when you ask them if it’s worth it — to spend weeks to gain just 1percent of efficiency in a gas turbine, for instance — they answer that the small 1 percent means that my town can have electrical power this year, and it’s free because it comes from a machine that now makes better use of the input resources.

Then you discover that it’s the same for your house heating system. My new one burns 20 percent less gas to warm my house exactly to the same temperature as the old furnace. The new fridge functions with just 50 percent of the energy of the previous one because of a new-generation compressor, improved isolation and detailed study of fluid dynamics. My phone battery lasts much longer thanks to improved energy management that cuts power losses. Are you wondering how is this possible? It’s amazing that new products can show such increases in performance time after time.

I like to see how simulation is helping engineers to realize their products, providing  tools that enable innovation by amplifying their capabilities. Optimizing a product is a big job, made of very small details. You have to understand how complex physical phenomena work, how they interact, and then master them through the hundreds of design variables of your product.

The good news is that today we have a mature technological ecosystem that makes it  all feasible. Workstations are so powerful and cheap, HPC resources are widely available, and ANSYS software is developed deliberately to take the full advantage of these infrastructures to run faster and faster, allowing engineers to predict with confidence the behavior of thousands of possible variants of a product, giving them a deep insight into the physical phenomena.

As a consequence, an engineer or researcher is now in the position of having a reliable answer to all his why, how and what-if questions in a short time. Scientists are designing new products that will help with energy generation and energy savings — an important contribution to our spaceship power balance and its passengers’ survival.

I love the idea that through my job, together with my colleagues,  I’m enabling engineers to do that. And that’s the reason why I contribute daily by spreading the culture of simulation.

This entry was posted in Aerospace & Defense, Energy, Industries and tagged , by Paolo Colombo. Bookmark the permalink.

About Paolo Colombo

Paolo Colombo is the Aerospace & Defense Global Industry Director at ANSYS. He was born in Italy in 1970, joined the Air Force as student pilot in 1992 and, though his career took a different path, he is still regularly flying. From 1999 his passion for advanced technologies brought him to work with companies' managers and executives on emerging technologies in product engineering, rapid prototyping, additive manufacturing and engineering simulation. He joined ANSYS in 2010. Paolo holds a BSc and an MBA majoring in Innovation management.