Novak uses country's best supercomputers to tackle new research projects

5/7/2024 Phillip Kisubika

Written by Phillip Kisubika

Novak uses country's best supercomputers to tackle new research projects

Sometimes research advances can be held back by stunted imaginations, and sometimes, they can be hindered by stunted technology.

NPRE assistant professor April Novak has taken on new challenges in two separate projects because of innovations in computing. Both are large computing allocations, with access to the biggest computers in the country—at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee—to do research.

“The idea is that scientists can apply for time to work on these supercomputers on complex simulations,” Novak said. “I’m really excited about these projects because these are questions that nobody has had the computing power to ask before, so we’re really able to take the first crack at trying to understand what these physics represent and the impact they have on engineering.”

One project is through the Department of Energy’s INCITE Leadership Computing program. This project, “Advancing Fusion and Fission Energy through Exascale,” is led by Elia Merzari of Penn State University and includes Novak and Illinois CS professor Paul Fischer as co-investigators.

The objective of this research is to provide the high-fidelity simulation capabilities essential to long-term nuclear viability by developing unprecedented insight into large-scale multi-physics phenomena. First of a kind, full-system hybrid Reynolds Averaged Navier Stokes (RANS) and Large Eddy Simulation (LES) of fusion devices will be conducted on Frontier, the nation’s preeminent supercomputer.

This research is situated at the opportune moment for leadership computing facilities to impact the trajectory of advanced nuclear. These first-of-a-kind large scale simulations will usher in a new era where such simulations are possible and firmly establish the nuclear field as a leader in exascale computing.

“People need to test components in semi-realistic fusion environments in order to engineer these systems,” Novak said. “By complementing physical experiments with numerical simulations, we can gain deeper insight into coupled physics and their impacts on design.”

The second project is titled “Advanced Computing for Scientific Discovery of Molten Salt Reactor Dynamics.” Novak is the primary investigator of this research, which will be conducted using the Summit supercomputer at ORNL.

“Molten salt fast reactors have never been built before, so we’re operating in a lot of unknown territory in terms of how they are going to perform when we actually build these systems,” Novak said. “In that sense, modeling is really important in early-stage design so we can figure out how they are going to behave.”

The project will be to study the fundamental interactions between turbulence and neutron transport in fast spectrum molten salt reactors. Until now, detailed study wasn’t possible because of limitations in computing power. Molten salt reactors are different because they have liquid fuel as opposed to the solid fuel and structures of most reactors.

“In many studies of nuclear reactors, we can design reactors using steady-state simulations in combination with transient simulations of reactor accidents. Now, we are able to also study the transient nature of turbulence and its impact on neutron transport. Industry doesn’t usually have access to this large scale of computing, and these simulations can therefore provide important information on the current limitations and blind spots of industry methods.”

For these projects, Novak can access Frontier and Summit from her computers on campus here at Illinois, and she will have help from her current PhD students.

“This is a really great opportunity for students to learn about the leading front of computing and what effect it can have on research,” she said.

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This story was published May 7, 2024.