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Breakthrough: MFiX: Building Industry-Scale Machines in a Virtual World

July 11, 2012 - 1:34pm


Mfix is open-source, virtual modeling software that makes coal gasification processes more efficient than was ever possible through lab tests. Modeling reduces the cost and time of testing and building actual systems and ultimately results in lower costs, improved power plant efficiency, and new energy systems that meet or even exceed current or proposed environmental regulations. View the entire Lab Breakthrough playlist.

National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) research scientist Chris Guenther is using virtual models to make coal gasification more efficient than was ever possible through lab tests - in a fraction of the time. He recently sat down with us to discuss the benefits of his work on efficiency in these energy production processes, and the benefit of open–source software in the science community.

Question: First off, for my mom in Ohio — what makes the breakthrough so exciting for her?

Chris Guenther: The ability to evaluate new energy systems in a virtual environment, rather than through repeated experiments, is very exciting because there are no limitations to what the computer models can do. Modeling reduces the cost and time of testing and building actual systems and ultimately results in lower costs, improved power plant efficiency, and new energy systems that meet or even exceed current or proposed environmental regulations.

Q: What about your facility made it the right place for this discovery - whether colleagues, equipment or interdisciplinary collaboration? 

CG: NETL’s focus on industrial-scale fossil fuel systems is unique within the Energy Department’s national laboratory system. With this focus in mind, NETL has built one of the world’s preeminent multiphase flow research groups. The laboratory’s ongoing experimental program integrates a core group of computational scientists with leading researchers worldwide to advance computational multiphase flow research.

Q: I know that work often builds from other work in a ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ type of way. Are there any particular technologies or discoveries that act as a basis for your work?

CG: The origins of the multiphase computational models used today can be traced all the way back to Sir Isaac Newton’s revolutionary work on fluid motion in the 17th century. Since then, the basic theory of multiphase flow science has advanced. Computers have been invented. Computer systems have become faster and cheaper, and new computer algorithms have been developed. This convergence of ideas and technologies has allowed us to perform our work and advance multiphase flow science.

Perhaps just as important as the giants of the past is the way in which we stand on each other’s shoulders today. Not only does NETL have one of the world’s strongest multiphase flow research groups, but these researchers collaborate with universities from all over the country, other national labs, and with industrial stakeholders to create the largest network of multiphase flow researchers in the world. NETL brings together this community of researchers annually for the NETL Multiphase Flow Conference. 

Q: Would you say that using open-source software is the rule or the exception in the scientific community?

CG: Open-source is the rule in the academic world and many government labs, but is clearly not the choice for private industry. Usually, industry doesn’t want to share their specific software due to the proprietary nature of what they are trying to develop or test. In addition, they often want guarantees on the ability of a model to work and the ability to reach out for support 24/7. In contrast, academia and government labs don’t usually have proprietary interests, so they’re free to share their software—to actually provide it for free in the hope that users will work collaboratively to improve the software, solve problems, and address common goals. However, even though open-source is not the path of industry, technology transfer is. In fact, many aspects of the multiphase flow modeling work conducted at NETL have found their way into leading commercial software packages and, as a result, are being used by industry worldwide.

Q: Is there any limit to the application of this technology?

CG: The technology is limited only by lack of imagination and knowledge. We at NETL work with many industry folks who are all trying to solve multiphase flow problems, and we always try to figure out how MFiX can be used to solve these problems. Ultimately, we see MFiX being used to solve industrial-scale problems in a matter of hours.  Faster computers, improved numerical algorithms, and continued advancement of the entire multiphase flow science research community will enable us to reach this goal.

Q: I understand this software has even been used to research volcanoes.  Can you tell me more about that?

CG: Los Alamos National Laboratory used MFiX to study how hot magma from below the surface flows into the volcano and, along with ash and gases, escapes into the atmosphere. Geophysics pioneered the application of supercomputing to simulation of volcanic eruptions starting in the 1970s. Since that time, the capability has spread to institutions worldwide. Data from eruptions can be used for everything from predicting future eruptions to understanding how eruptions in the distant past may have affected global weather systems and the formation of geological features.

This Q&A and video are part of the Lab Breakthrough series, which highlights innovations and inventions developed at the National Labs.