Dr Neil Ashton, Senior Researcher, talks to us about virtual wind-tunnels, digital design processes and NASA
When did you start at the Centre and what was your first role here?
I came to the centre in December 2015, initially as a visiting academic and then after going to work for NASA in the US for 4 months, I came back as a Senior Researcher in July this year.
What is your background?
I did my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at the University of Manchester in aerospace engineering, but after getting sick of University life I went to work for a Formula 1 team after I finished my PhD! That brought me down to Oxfordshire, which I loved, but realised that I missed the academic life and diversity, so went back to Manchester University as a post-doc until the end of 2015. I also became a Chartered Engineer in 2013, which I am proud of.
Summarise the research you are doing / your research interests in a few sentences.
My main area of research is Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD), which can be most easily thought as a virtual wind-tunnel, where we solve complex mathematical equations (Navier-Stokes) using very large computers to get information about how air, water or blood move around and through objects of interest (cars, planes, our own bodies). My research is focused on improving the accuracy of these methods, in particular how we account for the turbulent nature of these flows and also how industry can use them in their design processes.
Why is this important (to the scientific community / the world at large)?
My research into making CFD more accurate and automated could one day lead to aeroplanes and cars being designed purely in the digital world, with no physical testing until it is actually built. This could offer huge increases in productivity and reductions in the time to market for new designs.
The great thing about CFD is that the same models can be used to design the fastest bicycle for the Olympics, as the one that can simulate the blood around our own bodies. This diversity of applications means the impact to society and our economy is high.
What would you like to do next, funding permitting?
I am looking to establish a group in CFD here at the Oxford e-Research Centre to realise this dream of creating a purely digital design process/tool. As CFD requires large High-Performance Computing (HPC) resources, I am working very closely with the Scientific Computing group, led by Dr Wes Armour, to come up with novel ways to speed up these tools even further.
Are you involved in any wider collaborations? Why are these important?
Outside of the Centre I am part of several working groups, including one setup by the AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics) where I work very closely with colleagues from NASA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and others. These collaborations are very important as, working together, we can solve problems much faster than on our own.
What publication /paper are you most proud of and why?
I think my best paper so far has been: Ashton, N, Revell, A., (2016) 'Assessment of RANS and DES methods for a realistic automotive model', Computers & Fluids, Vol 128, pp 1-15, as it really showed just how higher-fidelity CFD models can be used on complex industrial flows. We did a comprehensive investigation that was one of the first such simulations of this vehicle.
Have you received any awards or fellowships?
Unfortunately, not, but ask me that again in a few years' time!
What do you think the most important issues/challenges in your field will be in the next decade and how is the Centre placed to address them?
The biggest challenge is to move towards a digital design process with much greater levels of automation. Key to this is both the accuracy of the methods e.g the mathematical modelling, but also how we can take advantage of the need for ever greater HPC resources. In this area the Centre has a head start with its internationally recognised expertise in HPC. I hope that as a centre we can grow to become a globally important centre for CFD research.
What do you think the Centre does best?
By being a research-only centre, staff can focus more time on actual research rather than lectures (preparation, teaching, marking etc) which I personally think is a great thing! I also like how easy it is to speak to people from Associate Directors to administration staff. It's also in a great location in Oxford, which is a plus!
Watch Dr Ashton's TEDx talk on turbulence.
He has also recently been featured in BBC Focus magazine.