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Using computers to simulate the way that fluids move

by YPU Admin on September 23, 2016, Comments. Tags: aerospace engineering, Computers, Fluids, Research, STEM, and UoM


My name is Joe O'Connor and I am a second year PhD student in Aerospace Engineering here at Manchester. In 2009 I started my first degree at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. During this time I was able to take part in an exchange programme which allowed me to go and study at the University of California, Irvine for one year. Also as part of my undergraduate degree I had the opportunity to work at Rolls-Royce for six months helping to design new aircraft engines. Upon completion of my Masters degree I then moved to Manchester to start my PhD research.

My research is focussed on the field of Computational Fluid Dynamics, or CFD for short. All this means is using computers to simulate the way that fluids move. At this point it is important to understand what exactly a fluid is. When we talk about fluids we usually think of liquids, however gasses are also fluids as well (gasses can flow!). This means the air we breathe, the water we drink, the blood going through our body, and the fuel in our cars are all fluids. Because fluids are literally everywhere it is very important to understand exactly the way fluids behave in certain situations – this allows us to design better aeroplanes, wind turbines, or even artificial hearts. The focus of my research is developing software which will allow us to do this in a better way than what we already are.

In Depth

Understanding the way that fluids (such as air) move is very important for a number of reasons – Formula 1 teams spend a lot of time and money doing this to make sure their cars are as aerodynamic as possible, as do aeroplane manufactures. However, the really difficult thing about this is that the equations that tell us how fluids move are very long and very complicated – and therefore very difficult to solve. In fact, to this day no one has actually ever been able to solve them exactly and that is why they are one of the 7 Millennium Prize Problems. What that means is that if you find out a way to solve them exactly then someone will give you one million dollars as a reward!

So if no one can actually solve these equations how can we use them to help us simulate the way that fluids move? This is where the field of Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) comes in. In CFD we use some very clever mathematical tricks that let us get very very close to the right answer. There are a number of problems in doing it this way though. The first problem is that we don't always get very close to the right answer, in fact sometimes we can get completely the wrong answer (and we don't always know this because we don't know what the actual answer should be in the first place!). Another problem is that to use these mathematical tricks we need very very big computers – there are some people out there running simulations on computers so big they are the equivalent of one million laptops all plugged into each other - and even with these massive computers it can still take months to calculate the answer! The purpose of my research then is to develop new methods and mathematical tricks we can use that allow us to get more reliable results, in a shorter time frame, on smaller computers. This will then allow us to investigate the way that fluids move in more detail and improve the way we design cars, planes and anything else that involves fluids (pretty much everything!).

A typical day for me usually involves being sat at my desk writing code and testing out new ideas. Problem solving plays a large part in programming and software development and the feeling of finally solving that problem you've been stuck on for ages is great. Another great aspect of my research is that, as fluids are involved in nearly all engineering applications, I have the opportunity to work in a range of different industries – from automotive and aerospace engineering to biomedical engineering and biotechnology. There are also examples of researchers in my field who have won Oscars for the fluid models they have made for animated films!

Going Further

For further updates about my research activities please follow me on Twitter: @joconnor29

The link to the website of the people who will give one million dollars if you solve the fluid equations is here:

For a really good introduction to computers and programming see the 2008 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures:

See these YouTube videos of CFD in action:


Work Experience Stories: From the Nuffield Foundation

by YPU Admin on October 1, 2015, Comments. Tags: Nuffield, placement, Research, science, STEM, UoM, and Work Experience


Hi, my name is Jen Young and I am a 17 year old student studying A-level biology, chemistry, geography and maths and always knew my future lay in the field of science. Therefore, when I heard of an opportunity to undertake a research project through Nuffield Research Placements, I jumped at the opportunity. I was thrilled to find out I was starting my research placement at Manchester University’s Dalton Cumbrian Facility on the 20th of July.

I applied because I was thinking of studying biology or biochemistry at university so when this opportunity came
up; I had to grab it with both hands as it would give me valuable experience in a research-based environment. This type of career appealed to me and I felt it was appropriate to gain first-hand experience of the work they do there and the different projects going on. Finally, it would allow me to learn some practical skills, including how to use some of the lab equipment which would surely aid my UCAS application and show that I have valuable experience in my subject area.


In Depth

My project focused on determining how gamma radiation affected the digestion of feedstock, in this case a poor quality grass from the hills of Cumbria called scrow, and how the pretreatment may affect the yield of biogas from set amounts of grass silage and slurry. In order to identify an appropriate method, several preliminary trials were carried out to determine the best volume of inoculum and the mass of grass silage per 50ml vial. A few other trials were undergone to determine grinding time and “mashability” so the investigation was quite thorough.

This project was requested by Riever Renewables a major anaerobic digester development company which gave the research a real sense of importance and it showed that it was relevant to current science. The research could even be used for a future PhD or paper which could prove to be beneficial to renewable energy production in the UK.

My previous knowledge about the affect of radiation pretreatment on feedstock was limited as it hadn't really
been done before. The only familiarity I had with the project was the process of anaerobic digestion but even then I have gained a bounty of knowledge in the subject. With access to the ideas of the PhD students I can confidently say I know exactly how they work and after my research placement I can say that I am able to efficiently and accurately use equipment.

The experience far exceeded my expectations as I was trusted to use extremely expensive equipment and spent a
lot of my time working in a laboratory environment without supervision, which allowed me to gain plenty of experience while also being independent and figuring things out for myself. It was amazing to undertake scientific tasks while expanding my knowledge of the area. It really helped me understand what it is like to be a research scientist and it has given me an insight into the world of research. The experience has made me even more determined to apply for a place on a biological science course at university, mainly due to the confidence this placement gave me and the impression it gave me of a career as a research scientist.

On my placement, I had two supervisors, Andy and Laura. They assisted me throughout my project and gave me an insight into not only their work but their lives as researchers. Laura would always make sure that I had enough research to carry out so I was never bored and I understood exactly what the project entailed. Andy showed me the ropes and helped me throughout, showing me how to use the equipment, what research had been carried out so far and what his role was. It was a great opportunity to ask questions and learn about their field while also getting to know them as a person.

The experience taught me to use several different types of equipment safely and efficiently and how to draw
conclusions from data collected. My practical skills developed immensely and I now feel more confident when using the equipment having learned how to use much more advanced equipment during my placement than I would be expected to use at school.

On my project, I also had to write a report. This enabled me to work on my literacy skills and made me further understand the scientific concepts by having to explain it to others. Having never written a scientific report I was worried, especially as it was potentially being used as part of a paper but it turned out quite well and I was able to write a detailed report of my method and an analysis of my results drawing my own conclusions. Now I feel much more confident. This skill will prove to be very useful when I go to university or even in year 13 when I write essay answers.

This experience has made me realise that I would love to pursue a career in research specifically in human biology and thanks to their advice I know exactly what path I want to take. Even if this path doesn't work out I know many other ways to work in research and after my experience I can say that I would enjoy working there and I find it really interesting.

Going Further 

I encourage anyone thinking about a career in a STEM subject to apply for a Nuffield Research Placement. The skills are invaluable and simply not covered in school. It will benefit you greatly, especially when thinking of going to university. It is a great way to spend some of your summer holidays and it is an experience that not many people get this early in life. The opportunity will require work and perseverance but it is entirely worth it, not only through teaching you new skills but also through providing you with confidence in your abilities.

Find out more:

Nuffield Research Placement:


Science and Engineering have the power to change the world we live in!


My name is Marcello and I earned my PhD in particle physics at the University of Manchester, in 2013. Since then, I have been working as a researcher for the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). 

STFC is a UK government body that carries out civil research in science and engineering, and funds UK research in areas including particle physics, nuclear physics, space science and astronomy.

I work in the technology department and I am involved in projects dealing with the building of instrumentation for experiments in nuclear physics. This type of instrumentation is not available commercially because it has very particular requirements. Hence, STFC employs dedicated teams of physicists and engineers to build this type of equipment. And I am one of them!

My experience.

I decided to continue my education after the age of 18 and so enrolled in a bachelor’s degree of physics at the University of Manchester. This decision opened up many opportunities in my life.

I gained an objective view of natural phenomena and increased my employability.

Science and engineering have the power to change the world we live in. These subjects produce the most amazing technology and fuel the economy of many countries. For this reason, the analytical thinking of a physicist is highly valued in the job market.

As a student, I did not always find physics easy to understand and did not like all of its different branches equally. My favorite topic is the interaction of radiation with matter, so I decided to specialize in this area for my masters and PhD.

An education in physics gave me the opportunity to study and work in an environment which is professional, multicultural and at the forefront of human knowledge.

From the neighborhood I grew up in, I found myself involved in international projects investigating important questions about our existence. I spent time in laboratories in other countries to exchange information about my work. During this time, I also made strong friendships and discovered new places.

The knowledge I gained in high-school in mathematics, physics and computer science, has been beneficial to my career.

To summarise, I wanted to include some figures about salaries of researches in the initial and middle stages of their careers:

-  PhD student (22-25 years old): about £12,000 per year. 

-  Post-doc researcher (25-35 years old): from £28,000 to £35,000 per year.

-  Academic staff or senior researcher (35-45 years old): from £35,000 to £45,000.

Salaries will increase even further for managerial positions within Universities or Research Institutes and are generally higher in the private sector.

Further details

Apprenticeships are really good opportunities to boost your experience in science and engineering and I’ve found that it is easier to find apprenticeships in engineering than in science. Engineering or IT apprenticeships are valuable opportunities for aspiring scientists.

Some organizations that help people to enter top Universities.

Get involved and become a STEM Ambassador.