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Philipp Schlatter, left, and Luca Brandt aim to create the first-ever full simulation of turbulent air currents on an entire aircraft wing. (Photo: Marc Femenia)

Air current tracking may make flights greener

Published May 15, 2014

Researchers into Fluid Mechanics at KTH Royal Institute of Technology are notching up further successes and have recently received a number of prestigious grants. One of the goals is to be first in the world in simulating the complex air currents surrounding an entire aircraft wing.

The research groups at the Linné Flow Centre hold a world leading position in Fluid Mechanics.  One of the researchers, Philipp Schlatter, was recently elected a Wallenberg Academy Fellow, the career programme for young and promising researchers. This means he will obtain SEK 5 million to help him realise the goal of fully simulating the turbulent air currents that an aircraft wing encounters.

“Today, we are carrying out experiments in a wind tunnel but we intend to perform these equally well on a computer. On the one hand this delivers cost savings and, on the other hand, we can achieve a more detailed picture than in a wind tunnel where the sensors themselves have a limiting effect and can also cause disturbances,” Schlatter says.

Such a step forward entails the development of better software and new methods for collecting and evaluating all the data that is created on computer simulation.

“We generate several terabytes of data during a simulation and we need the right tools to save, make sense of, and analyse all this data,” Schlatter says.

When the researchers have finally succeeded in this task, we should be able to see aircraft with lower fuel consumption and making less noise, he thinks. 

One of the leading five

The simulation of turbulent currents, on a smaller scale, has been carried out since the 1980’s. As ever more powerful super computers are applied, the science has been developed and ever more complex simulations have been performed.

“But so far nobody has succeeded in simulating the actual currents with a whole aircraft wing, so when we succeed we will be the first, he says. “We are today among the five leading research groups in the world in this field and work in collaboration with international researchers, and that includes Paul Fischer at Argonne National Laboratory,” he says.

Fredrik Lundell, Linné Flow Centre

The long-term goal is to be able to simulate an entire aircraft flying at 10,000 metres height. But that is still 20–30 years away. Only then will the super computers be in a position to offer the data processing power that is required.

“The access to computerised power is a precondition for our research. Here at KTH we have, through the PDC centre and SNIC, access to super computers with about 40,000 processors. We expect to obtain a further 3–4 times more power within a few years,” Schlatter says.

Besides these local resources, the researchers make frequent use of the European network, PRACE (Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe) where it is possible to apply for computer time with super computers within Europe.

Success after long-term investment

His colleague Luca Brandt has been granted about 2 million Euros in the form of an ERC Consolidator Grant. This is for research intended to lead to more detailed computer simulations of the behaviour of particle-filled liquids, such as pulp or blood. These simulations will be run on computers with thousands of processors.

Brandt says: “There’s strong demand to be able to use verified models within industries such as the paper industry, process industry in general and the food industry.”

Fredrik Lundell, researcher and communications manager at the Linné Flow Centre, believes that today’s achievements in the field can be traced back to investments in the past. Nowadays, KTH encompasses both a good infrastructure - such as access to a well-developed international network - and a good inflow of ideas and researchers. And, not least, there are a number of good role models.  

“Both Luca Brandt and Philipp Schlatter are exceptional individuals, active in our strong research environment at the Linné Flow Centre. Here we combine work on numerical methods, Fluid Mechanics and Flow Acoustics in a very successful way,” Lundell says.

Magnus Pahlén Trogen