The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California is packed with the world’s most powerful supercomputers working on some heady research. One, called Sierra, has been helping scientists explore the Big Bang theory, model the beginning of our universe 13.7 billion years ago, and figure out why elementary particles have mass. If that’s not enough, the machine also is seeking to crack the carbon riddle and understand how this element, the backbone of life and a fifth of the weight of our bodies, is formed inside stars. But starting in April, Sierra will tend to more practical matters. It will help GE engineers build a better jet engine.
When Sierra started crunching data in 2010, it was the most powerful high performance computer (HPC) working on unclassified research at the lab. In the next few weeks, Madhu Pai, a “computational combustion engineer” at GE Global Research and a team of researchers from Arizona State University and Cornell University will take over some of the machine’s circuits to speed the development of next-generation fuel injectors for GE’s jet engine fleet.
Spray gun: A snapshot from a high-performance computer simulation
of a liquid spray from a test fuel injector done at GE Global Research.
Why are fuel injectors important? They feed the engine with the right mixture of air and fuel, and help determine its thrust, power, and fuel consumption, among other things.
Fuel injectors sport an intricate design and geometry, work in extreme heat, and must handle punishing pressures. They’ve been notoriously difficult to test and build. “High-fidelity computer simulations can significantly reduce the number of trials and can provide insights into why a fuel injector behaves the way it does,” Pai said. “The supercomputer will give us a 360 degree view of the inside of the injector, so that we can better understand the physics behind the design.”
Pai said that understanding how air and fuel burn “will help us ultimately build more powerful engines that consume less fuel and have lower emissions.”
The GE research team hopes that the simulations could yield new insights beyond jet engines and improve injectors used in locomotives, land-based gas turbines, and other parts and products.