Kyle Niemeyer, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, develops advanced numerical methods for computational modeling of combustion and reactive flows. Recent research includes the advancement of tools and algorithms for graphics processing units that increase the accuracy and detail of chemical models in combustion simulations. Other research interests include computational modeling of multi-physics flows for applications in aerospace, transportation, and energy systems. Niemeyer’s research group develops numerical methods that researchers can use to better simulate important physical phenomena, including combustion, turbulence-chemistry interactions, and the interaction of fluids with solid structures.
“In the big picture, I look at computational modeling of combustion and fluid flows, mostly for gaseous states,” said Niemeyer. “I also investigate situations in which moving flows interact with a moving object.” A flag flapping in the wind is an everyday example of such an interface.
His work holds the potential to increase the efficiency of combustion technology, which translates into lower pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and conservation of scarce resources. Niemeyer estimates that 85% of the world’s power is generated by combustion, so anything that decreases its negative impact on the environment will have long-lasting climate and health implications. “I’d like to see the world move away from combustion for generating power, but for the near future we will still be burning things to convert energy, whether it’s for transportation or electrical power. We should try to do it in a way that minimizes harm,” he said. “My work doesn’t directly lead to cleaner energy, but my hope is that it provides either the tools or the understanding that results in that endpoint.”
Niemeyer joined Oregon State in 2014 as research faculty and became an assistant professor in 2015. He received his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Case Western Reserve University in 2013. Case Western also conferred his B.S. in aerospace engineering in 2009 and his M.S. in aerospace engineering in 2010.
Among his primary objectives is to create faster computer-based tools for simulating combustion and power generation, allowing engineers and designers to solve problems more quickly and more accurately. “Computational modeling drives design these days,” he said. “The old model of building multiple prototypes is too slow and expensive.” Niemeyer also strives to increase understanding of phenomena that are central to power generation, whether it occurs in an aircraft’s gas turbine engines or a natural gas power plant.
In one study, funded by the NSF and done with collaborators at the University of Connecticut, Niemeyer is designing combustion simulation software that meshes more effectively with advanced microprocessors. Computer codes that have been used for years are not always compatible with updated processor architectures. “The goal is to advance simulation algorithms so they can run on the newest processors,” he explained. Ultimately, he wants to build a library of code that is freely available to other researchers. Niemeyer strongly advocates conducting science openly and sharing results. “If we develop software or come up with useful data, we put them on a widely used website so anyone can download them,” he said.
A related project, funded by NASA and conducted jointly with MIT and Purdue, involves speeding up computer simulations of fluid flow performed by high-speed computing clusters. Each node in the cluster calculates part of the problem at hand, but communication between nodes often cannot keep up with processing speeds. The result is an information bottleneck and delayed results, Niemeyer explained. “We’re working toward reducing that communication time to get faster simulations,” he explained. One potential application area for such simulations is studying the aerodynamics of NASA vehicles, such as the Space Launch System.
Niemeyer also studies smoldering combustion — slow burning that occurs without a visible flame. Smoldering produces higher levels of carbon monoxide and other pollutants compared with flames and can be difficult to contain, making it a serious health and environmental threat. It is particularly relevant in wildfire management. His research, funded by the EPA and the Department of Defense and in partnership with David Blunck, also an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Oregon State, aims for a better understanding of the causes and underlying conditions of smoldering events. “We want to know the physics of ignition and propagation of smoldering,” said Niemeyer.
Niemeyer also investigates pulse detonation engines, which have no moving parts and rely on continuous explosions to generate thrust for locomotion and, possibly, electricity generation.
When mapping out the direction of his research, Niemeyer is mindful of choosing avenues that hold the potential for strong contributions to his field. “I don’t want to work in a vacuum, and I don’t want to conduct research that doesn’t make an impact,” he said. Additional funding sources for his research include Chevron and Oregon BEST.
In high school, Niemeyer played with the idea of becoming an architect. But, inspired by space travel and science fiction, he decided to study aerospace engineering. From there, curiosity about aircraft and spacecraft engines led him to advanced degrees in mechanical engineering.
When working with undergraduates, Niemeyer takes great pleasure from shepherding students through difficult academic work. “I really enjoy it when a student who didn’t understand something finally figures out the problem,” he said. “What I teach is not easy, and some students understandably feel insecure. By the time they leave, however, many have ‘gotten it.’ Niemeyer appreciates similar growth among his graduate students. “Seeing their progression and watching them produce work that others in the field take interest in is truly gratifying,” he said.
— Steve Frandzel