A University of Manchester PhD student has developed software that can generate complex scientific and engineering simulations using computer game technology.

Using powerful graphic processing units (GPUs), Alex Chow from the school of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering is able to simulate powerful ocean waves crashing against offshore structures, such as wind turbines and oil rigs. The simulations can predict the waves’ potential impact forces on the structures, providing a valuable tool when designing offshore structures.

“Using physical experiments can be extremely impractical and not representative of the problem,” said Chow.

“These simulations allow engineers and researchers to make important decisions about the design of a structure without having to invest in site visits and costly experiments.”

Complex simulations such as tidal patterns consist of billions of calculations and millions of data points that require the processing power of a supercomputer. Such computers are comprised of hundreds of central processing units (CPUs) connected to thousands of computing cores. These cost thousands to millions of pounds as a result, while consuming large amounts of energy. Because of this, they are only accessible to a small number of researchers and scientists.

“Using this kind of technology reduces the costs of complex scientific simulations from hundreds of thousands of pounds to just a couple of thousand,” said Chow.

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Chow developed the software from the open-source code DualSPHysics. On this, he was able to run the scientific simulation method ‘incompressible smoothed particle hydronamics’ (ISPH), which runs on a GPU and stimulates complex, violent water flows.

“An advantage is that most researchers and small engineering companies are able to afford a relatively powerful laptop or computer with a quality GPU so it makes this kind of simulation and research even more accessible.”

The UK generates more electricity from offshore wind than any other country in the world with around 5% of annual electrical energy coming from the sector. This is expected to grow to 10% by 2020 and it is growing fast on a global level.

“The amount of energy produced from offshore environments is increasing as the world tries to meet the world’s energy targets, but the ocean environment can be very violent and harsh, so efficiently designing structures for these environments is a difficult task,” said Chow.