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Flying to New Heights

Volume 13, Number 2 | January 2012
By Chad Baldwin

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Dimitri Mavriplis will be among the many UW professors who will benefit from soon-to-be-opened NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center near Cheyenne. In 2003, Dimitri Mavriplis was working at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., using computers to help perfect aircraft designs for the nation’s aeronautical research agency.

Then he received an offer from the University of Wyoming that he simply couldn’t pass up. “The Mechanical Engineering Department was looking to start a program in computational fluids, and that’s exactly what I wanted to do,” Mavriplis says.

He hasn’t just built a program since joining the UW faculty eight years ago, he’s established it as one of the nation’s best. And Mavriplis’ work with computational fluid dynamics (CFD), a branch of fluid mechanics that uses numerical methods and algorithms to analyze and solve fluid flow challenges, will only be bolstered by the soon-to-be-opened NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center (NWSC) near Cheyenne.

The NWSC, which will provide world-class computer capability for even more precise and complex aerodynamic simulations, is being developed in partnership with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, UW, the state of Wyoming, Cheyenne LEADS, the Wyoming Business Council and Cheyenne Light, Fuel and Power.

“It’s really good for the university,” he says. “It should put us on the map as one of the top universities focused on super-computing, with the resources to do it.” For many years, Mavriplis says, the process of coming up with the best aircraft designs was a matter of expensive trial and error. Aeronautical engineers would devise a craft based on intuition and experience, then test its performance in a wind tunnel. Adjusting the design required time-consuming structural changes and additional testing.

There’s still a place for wind-tunnel testing, but computerization, as it has in many fields, has revolutionized aeronautic engineering. Today, engineers use sophisticated computer programs to test aircraft designs, employing virtual three-dimensional models to learn about lift and drag through simulations of air pressure and velocity. Adjustments can be made quickly on the computer screen, without the time and expense of building a physical model and testing it in a wind tunnel. The process involves complicated and voluminous mathematic equations that rely on ever-increasing computer capacity and human expertise.

Mavriplis is among the nation’s leaders.

After earning his Ph.D. in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Princeton University, Mavriplis worked 16 years at NASA Langley. He now leads a research group at UW that includes Jay Sitaraman, an assistant professor who was recruited from NASA Langley in 2009, four doctoral students and three post-doctoral researchers.

In addition to working on computer models that can be used to develop safer and more efficient airplanes, UW’s CFD lab has become involved in the development of computer simulation models for helicopters and wind turbine aerodynamics. Recently, the group became a major partner in the Vertical Lift Research Center of Excellence, one of three national centers for helicopter research, led by the University of Maryland.

Mavriplis says his family—which includes his wife and three school age children—feels right at home in Laramie. The whole family has become avid skiers and he says, “I love the winters here.”

With access to a new supercomputer on the way, a national profile and strong backing from the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Mavriplis is poised to lift UW’s CFD program to even greater aeronautical heights.


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