Extracting drinking water from the sea to prepare for a world parched by climate change, and re-imagining aeroplane and ship hull designs for the best fuel efficiency, are two of the visionary applications of a new £2.4 million research project announced today (Friday 15 October) at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland.
Professor Jason Reese of the University's Faculty of Engineering has been awarded the grant by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), alongside support worth £720,000 from nine industrial partners, to lead research investigating how engineering flow systems can help respond to global health, transportation, energy and climate challenges over the next 40 years.
The United Nations estimates that by 2050, four billion people in 48 countries will lack sufficient water. As 97 percent of the water on the planet is saltwater, large-scale technologies to make seawater or other contaminated water drinkable are therefore needed urgently.
At the same time, figures from the US Energy Information Administration forecast that China's passenger transportation energy use per capita will triple over the next 20 years, and India's will double. Improving the fuel efficiency of air and marine transport is a strategic priority for governments and companies around the world, and would reduce the emissions that lead to climate change.
The cross-disciplinary team includes Professor Reese from the University of Strathclyde, Dr Duncan Lockerby from the University of Warwick, and Professor David Emerson from Daresbury Laboratory in Warrington. The team will deliver new techniques for simulating fluid dynamics at the micro and nano scales – a critical area of research to enable the development of visionary technologies.
Professor Reese said: "Micro and nano scale engineering presents a surprising but important opportunity to help meet pressing global challenges. This means developing working devices some 10 to 1000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.
"For example, early indications are that membranes of carbon nanotubes have remarkable properties in filtering salt ions and other contaminants from water. In addition, embedding micro systems or nano structures over a vehicle's surface promises to substantially reduce the drag of aircraft and ships.
"But to enable the development of these technologies, it's essential that we get the fluids engineering right. At the moment, very few tools exist that help us to understand and simulate these 'non-equilibrium flows'. The new research will help us to bridge that gap, so that the non-intuitive flow physics can be exploited to engineer new technologies with performance beyond any currently conceived."
The five-year research project will deliver a new technique for simulating fluid flows at the nano and micro scale, which will be deployed on three technical challenges: reducing drag in aerospace; applications of super-hydrophobic surfaces to marine transport; and water desalination / purification.
The aim will be to accurately predict the performance of these proposed technologies, optimise their design and propose new designs which exploit flow behaviour at this scale for technological impact.
Starting on 1 January 2011, the research grant will fund 15 years of researcher time and five doctoral scholarships, and was leveraged by the recent investment of £750k in a major parallel supercomputer by the University of Strathclyde's Faculty of Engineering. The research is strongly supported by nine external partners, ranging from large multinational companies to SMEs and public advisory bodies.