Understanding how physical systems interact – for example, how a wind turbine interacts with wind and temperature fluctuations – is key to understanding and building better systems. This is the premise of a five-year research project launched this summer by assistant professor of mechanical engineering Aditya Nair. The project, funded by a $749,034 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Early Career Research Program, could ultimately help engineers harness peak performance through smart design.
Now in its thirteenth year, the DOE’s Early Career Research Program is designed to strengthen the nation’s scientific workforce by providing support to outstanding researchers during the crucial early career years, when many scientists are doing their most formative work. The winners were selected from a large pool of university and national laboratory applicants.
Building Better Renewable Energy Sources
“Physical system A, physical system B, these two systems behave differently – how are they actually going to talk to each other?” said Nair.
His research project, “Network-Based Simulations of Coupled Multi-Physics Systems”, aims to establish a computational framework that models how physical systems “talk” to each other on a dynamic system of graphs. The dynamic graph system considers nodes, or basic units of the data structure, and how they are connected to each other by weighted graphs (graphs in which each edge has an associated value). The research insights, writes Nair in the project summary, “will facilitate accurate characterization of inter-physics sensitivities, automate the algorithmic selection process for high-performance computing, and enable energy-efficient operation of multi-physics systems.”
Ultimately, Nair said, this can lead to building better renewable energy sources.
The concepts for making it happen may seem abstract, but Nair’s enthusiasm for this project is tangible.
“I want to emphasize that really understanding the fundamental interactions between physical systems and leveraging them to build better technology is the key to scientific progress,” Nair said.
Help throughout the academic journey
Getting a DOE grant is never easy, but Nair had additional stressors. When he applied for the program in January, his newborn daughter was in the hospital.
“It was a stressful time,” Nair said. “The DOE was supportive and accommodating, they understood where I was coming from.”
Today, his baby girl is doing well – “she’s awesome”, Nair said – and he credits her and her family for his good fortune. He was one of 83 scientists across the country to receive grants this year through the DOE’s Early Career Research Program.
“My daughter has given me all the luck I need,” he said.
If Nair is feeling lucky, he’s also hugely qualified for the award. With a doctorate. in Mechanical Engineering from Florida State University, his primary research interests lie at the intersection of fluid mechanics, data science, and graph theory. He has published several articles on modeling and control of fluid flow behavior and other topics in publications such as Advances in Aerospace Science and journal of fluid mechanics.
He credits his teachers for his strong academic foundation.
“In Hindu culture, gurus (teachers) are very important,” he said. “For me – my professors, my doctorate. advisor and post-doc advisors, it is their training that allowed me to obtain this award. I hope I can become a guru like that for future generations.
By receiving the grant, Nair, said, validated his academic ideas.
“For me, especially as a junior faculty member, it’s very encouraging to know that I can actually work on what I’m thinking about,” he said.
Nair is a founding member of the AI Institute for Dynamic Systems and helped develop the predictive capabilities of Truckee Meadows’ COVID-19 Risk Meter.