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Supercool simulation

Ice spreading through a water droplet. Video courtesy Mike Matheson, Oak Ridge National Lab.

For several years scientists at GE Global Research have been developing 'icephobic' surfaces – surfaces that will prevent ice formation. Even though the researchers were using computational simulations to gain insights into conditions that impede ice formation, the exact mechanisms at work were still unknown.

Using molecular dynamics – and with an assist from Titan at Oak Ridge National Lab in Oak Ridge Tennessee, US – researchers can now track the position of every single water molecule in very short time slices known as femtoseconds. Titan is one of the few resources in the world that can handle such computation and modeling. 

Masako Yamada, lead of the GE Advanced Computing Lab, was quoted as saying the researchers had recently achieved a five-times speedup by converting their code to run on the GPUs (graphics processing units) in addition to the CPUs.  Even so, they can only model water droplets 50 nanometers in size (far smaller than real world droplets) – and they still cannot run the models to simulate as long a time period as they would like.

Yamada recognized icephobic studies as a field that garners tremendous interest across academia, government labs, and industry. While supercomputer simulations and data models are advancing the research, researchers still rely on functional models.  Many experiments bring water in contact with candidate surfaces, which are then observed and measured for effectiveness. Some even use sophisticated microdroplet generators, high-speed cameras, and wind tunnels.

Simulated models complement physical models by offering a detailed look at the process of ice formation (nucleation), where solid water is a crystal that grows from a “nucleus” formed out of the liquid. The models enable Yamada to see how the water molecules interact with surfaces in femtosecond slices. 

Not only does icephobic research have the potential to improve everyday products like ice cream scoops, car windshields, and metal roofs, but it will also have a broad impact across industry (for example, in studying ice buildup on turbine blades, airplanes, and oil and gas rigs). 


- Amber Harmon

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