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When aerospace engineers design a new aircraft, they don’t start with a prototype, they start with a computer. Computer simulations have revolutionized that industry, allowing engineers to make complex calculations and fine tune designs well before the first physical model is ever produced. All of this amounts to a production process that costs less and produces a commercial product much faster. It’s an approach that has changed the way the aerospace industry operates, and it’s one that we believe can have the same effect on energy technologies.
The auto industry is a prime example of this potential. The combustion and chemical processes that drive a car engine are complicated, but we understand them well enough to build models that have been validated with experiments. As we work with industry to help make these vehicles more efficient, we can harness the power of computer simulations to examine infinite combinations of engine modifications rather than physically building and testing engines with slight modifications. This makes learning faster and cheaper than it would be under the conventional prototype model. This has already been demonstrated by companies such as Cummins, which designed a new diesel engine using simulation tools.
Carbon capture and storage is a similar opportunity; it’s a much needed and complicated technology not yet ready for wide scale deployment. Simulation can support design and troubleshooting of carbon capture and storage devices, finding the optimal balance of performance, reliability and cost. We can simulate a range of issues, from small scale interactions of carbon molecules to large scale changes in stability of underground reservoirs. The Department hopes to speed up the pace of carbon capture and sequestration technology development by decades.
Several offices within the Department are already demonstrating how simulations can be successfully applied to large-scale problems. Within the Office of Science, simulations have advanced across the sciences and have been particularly effective in describing the molecular basis of Parkinson’s disease and providing a good description of superconductivity. Very recently, the Department created the Nuclear Energy Innovation Hub that will allow engineers to create a simulation of a currently operating reactor that will act as a "virtual model" of that reactor. This could lead to advancements that would improve the efficiency and performance of nuclear reactors -- giving us more domestically produced, carbon free electricity from existing reactors, and helping us design the next generation of reactors with the highest standards of performance, efficiency and safety.
Within the National Nuclear Security Administration, the important simulation success story is the yearly validation that the nuclear stockpile is safe, secure, and effective. When testing nuclear weapons was banned, the Nation could no longer detonate weapons to find out how they change as they age. The Department of Energy created computer modeling capabilities coupled to validation experiments and integral test data that could provide the same information, and has since used modeling to maintain the integrity of the stockpile.
So given all of this, why isn’t the use of simulation within the energy industry as widespread or developed as it could be? Simulation poses a classic up-front investment problem. Initially creating simulation tools and expertise is expensive, even though it saves money and resources in the long term. In an age where capital is at a premium, that’s an investment that many companies and fledgling start-ups are reticent or simply unable to make on their own. That’s why public-private partnerships are key to advancing the use of simulation. These partnerships allow large and small firms in diverse industries to access simulation capabilities largely resident in the national laboratories and universities, effectively breaking down those investment barriers and putting the U.S. energy industry in a position to pioneer new approaches and technologies.
That’s why the Department of Energy has and will continue to invest in high performance computing, software, and algorithm development, to ensure that the US has the capabilities needed to solve science, security, and energy challenges.
Steven Koonin is the Under Secretary of Science.