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A world run on combustion

Speed read
  • A large percentage of pollution comes from the combustion of fuels
  • Simulating engines with exascale simulation platforms will help us understand efficient ways to burn fuel and also possibilities to use more environmentally friendly fuels
  • We may one day learn how to turn excess renewable energy into E-fuels

You may not realize it, but a large part of your life is only possible because of combustion. Whether you use the train, take a bus, or drive yourself, controlled combustions inside gasoline or diesel engines provide the energy needed to move you where you need to go.

<strong>Our cars are killing us.</strong> Combustion engines are invaluable transportation tools, but they come at a hefty price.

Like more dangerous explosions, controlled combustion has consequences. You won’t have to deal with shrapnel from a combustion engine, but the entire world is feeling the effects of the pollution that spews out of your tailpipe. In the US, transportation alone accounts for 28% of greenhouse gas emissions.

Reducing transportation will obviously play a role in pollution control, but it won’t be enough. We’ll need to come up with alternative fuels that don’t provide the same pollution that fossil fuels do.

This is where the new Center of Excellence in Combustion (CoEC) comes in. A collective effort under the umbrella of the Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC), CoEC hopes to use HPC resources and new technologies to simulate combustion inside virtual engines.

Daniel Mira, the CoEC project coordinator, spoke with us about what this organization is and how they plan on using exascale computing to complete their goals.

Simulating the complexities

As Mira points out, there are two main objectives to the CoEC: develop new technologies to assist in simulating realistic combustion systems and generate fundamental knowledge in the kinds of advancements that will play a role in the decarbonization process.

<strong>Smog, shown here in Beijing</strong> is partially generated by vehicle exhaust. The decarbonization will save the planet, but it could also help us better appreciate the places we live in.

The second goal is hard to conceptualize because it’s impossible to know what we don’t know, but the first is simple enough to understand.

“The CoEC has been built upon the ability to run high-fidelity simulations of engine processes in ways that we have not been able to do before,” says Mira. “For instance, what is the pressure of the engine considering the real design with all the injectors and sub-systems, with all the multiphysics that happen in there?”

Clearly, simulating something as complicated as an engine requires a lot of computing power. This is why exascale systems will play such a vital role in the CoEC’s work.

“What we are trying to do is to use exascale computers to better understand the reliability and the ability of combustion simulations in real environments,” says Mira. “In terms of exascale, the HPC community is saying that we are going to see computing power on the order of 100 to 1,000 times larger than what we have today.”

An alternative way for propulsion and power

The CoEC has a variety of goals, but one of them is to explore the viability of alternative fuels. As the name implies, alternative fuels are meant to be cleaner and more efficient alternatives to fossil fuels that can still perform a similar function to their higher-polluting counterparts.

One of these theoretical alternatives is what’s referred to as E-fuels, or also power-to-gas. Although we don’t have viable options now, E-fuels could help us deal with excess electricity from renewable sources.

<strong>Renewable energy sources</strong> are a necessity, but we don't have effective ways to store excess energy right now. E-fuels might be a viable solution.

“If you have a renewable energy system, with wind or solar energy, at some point there will be part of this electricity that you cannot use because you are producing too much,” says Mira. “In moments that the electricity is not needed, you need to somehow store it. One possibility is to store it in a battery, though they are expensive. You need space, and you cannot accumulate a huge amount of energy, so it’s limited to small-scale energy storage solutions.”

Mira continues, “However, this excess energy can be used to produce a synthetic fuel. The production of the fuel will no longer be coming from fossil fuels. So a synthetic fuel will be produced from a renewable energy source, and this will have a very low environmental impact.

Of course, we’ve got a long way to go before we can start realistically thinking about E-fuels as viable solutions to our current climate crisis. That said, work like Mira and his colleagues are doing at CoEC is bringing us closer to a world where burning fossil fuels isn’t the only way to get around.

What’s more, we’ll need collaboration of the highest order to pull this off.

“What I like about this project is that for the first time, there has been a joint initiative from the European side in which combustion scientists and HPC experts are going to work together,” says Mira. “I really like the opportunity to work with these research institutions that are leading experts in the field.

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