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Blue Waters Graduate Fellow: Michael Howard

The Blue Waters Graduate Fellowship was awarded to ten outstanding Ph.D. students in computational science. In this series we’re featuring brief introductions to who they are and what they’re trying to accomplish. This program serves to prepare the next generation of science researchers to solve the world’s problems. Follow along as we highlight these young researchers. Read more profiles here.

Tell me a little bit about yourself—where are you studying now, where did you do your undergrad, what was your major, etc.

I am a third-year chemical engineering Ph.D. student at Princeton University (Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering). I completed my undergrad—also in chemical engineering—at Penn State University.

Tell me about your research—what are you trying/ hoping to accomplish? What made you want to pursue this topic?

(A topical motivation of my research taken from my proposal)

From the flow of blood cells in our bodies, to the food we prepare in our kitchens, and up to industrial scale chemical processing, the transport of complex fluids can be observed almost anywhere. Complex fluids such as emulsions, polymer solutions, and colloidal suspensions are multicomponent dispersions displaying a rich variety of flow behaviors. The macroscopic rheology (flow) of a complex fluid is controlled at much smaller microscopic length scales by molecular interactions and structures. An important challenge for many applications of complex fluids, from lab-on-chip medical devices to personal care products like shampoo, is to precisely engineer the fluid’s rheological properties. … Computer simulations are ideal tools for efficiently identifying the most important component characteristics controlling the rheology.

The goals of my research are two-fold: (1) to develop massively parallel software for doing simulations of multiphase/complex fluids, and (2) to use this software to study enhanced oil recovery. I first plan to implement a developed algorithm for doing these types of simulations (multiparticle collision dynamics—MPCD) on GPUs. GPU acceleration will allow us to study problems at realistic length and time scales. To date, there has only been limited public availability of these types of codes, and so I plan to release the software open-source. I will then apply my software to study the initial stages of enhanced oil recovery—the process by which additional oil is extracted from geological formations. I became interested in these types of problems because of how common they are—in the laboratory, industry, or even just in consumer products or processes like cooking around the house. Despite this, it has remained an open challenge to optimally engineer complex fluids because of the many different parameters and formulations that are possible, and because the physics controlling the desired behavior may happen on length and time scales that are separated by orders of magnitude from what is observed. The development of efficient algorithms for high performance computers like Blue Waters can now allow us to effectively study these problems.

So what was your process like getting involved with Blue Waters? What made you want to apply for this fellowship?

I found out about the Blue Waters fellowship through a department email last year, and it sounded like an exciting opportunity to work on this research. I like having the independence to work on different problems that come with having a fellowship that is not tied to a specific funding grant. (Before Blue Waters, I was supported by a Department of Defense National Defense Science & Engineering Graduate Fellowship.) So far, the process of getting started with Blue Waters has been great—in particular, it’s really nice that we will be paired with an experienced mentor from NCSA.

How will the ability to use Blue Waters impact your research?

The resources available on Blue Waters (in particular the XK nodes) will allow me to optimize my software for massively parallel machines with GPUs. Accelerators have become an almost essential part of high performance computing in order to fully utilize the machines. I will then be able to use the Blue Waters resources to study problems over lengths and times and with varied parameters that might not be possible without such large resources.

Would you have been able to do this kind of research on any other machine? Why or why not?

It would be possible to conduct some of this research on other machines because even a single GPU is a powerful parallel computational resource. However, performing simulations on larger numbers of GPUs would be difficult to do on many “standard” machines, with the exception of a few large national resources (Oak Ridge Titan, SDSC Comet).

What is the overall impact that your research will have on the science community and the world at large?

I hope that my research during my fellowship tenure will have two broader impacts for the scientific community: (1) to enable other researchers, particularly in the soft matter and complex fluids communities, to apply the MPCD method to study problems of interest to them, and (2) to provide insight into the physics of multiphase fluid flow on the molecular scale. These results will positively impact the broader world through their applications to industry, e.g. enhanced oil recovery, consumer products, and lab-on-chip biomedical applications.

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