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Go With the FLOW: What’s Happening in the Mechanical Engineering FLOW Lab

Partnerships with NASA, groundbreaking discoveries in wind farm optimization and the design of flying cars; these are just a few ways the FLOW Lab of Brigham Young University’s Mechanical Engineering Department is changing the way the world is powered and run.

The FLOW Lab is a research laboratory in BYU's Mechanical Engineering Department. The lab was started by Dr. Andrew Ning when he came to BYU nearly seven years ago. Several groundbreaking projects in aerodynamics, the wind energy field and aircraft design have been developing since then.

FLOW is an acronym that embodies the focus areas of the lab and its associates: FLight, Optimization, and Wind. The word itself also represents aerodynamic flows, a main aspect of the lab.

In January, the FLOW Lab was selected to receive funding in a massive multi-university project sponsored by NASA for the creation of electrical vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) vehicles.

A key student researcher in this project is doctoral candidate Eduardo Alvarez, who for the past four years has specialized in eVTOL vehicles for his doctorate program. He is addressing the aerodynamic challenges of distributed electrical propulsion.

“There aren't best practices for designing airplanes like this,” Alvarez explained. “In my research I’m developing the tools to understand and predict how wakes mix and affect the performance of these aircraft, and how we can use this knowledge to design flying cars.”

Alvarez’s computational simulations of eVTOL designs have been a central focus of the past four years of his career.

“This is a challenge that people haven’t been able to address before, and I enjoy solving that,” Alvarez said. “Is very rewarding to be able to contribute to the body of science.”

The multi-university team working on this project was awarded $5.8 million over the next three years. For more information about this project, visit the NASA website.

The Air Force has recently developed interest in similar technology, and the FLOW lab has received an award for their collaborative work on projects commissioned by the Air Force through the Agility Prime Program.

“Electric power has enabled new capabilities for small aircraft and really opened up the design space,” Ning said.

Wind farms, which provide 8.4% of the nation's energy, are another major focus of the FLOW Lab.

A current project working on wind turbine design optimization has been going on for roughly a year. It’s a two-year, $1.6 million dollar project funded by the Department of Energy, and includes multiple universities working toward optimizing offshore wind turbine design.

“We’re doing aerodynamic blade optimization, another group has been working on structures and another group on controls,” Ning shared. “We’re starting to integrate the pieces together.”

Graduate student Adam Cardoza loves the challenging nature of participating in this project and this field because of its impact and importance.

“Improving how wind turbine designers make wind turbines can help with the energy problem. If we can make wind turbines more efficient and produce more power...then we’re helping with the energy problems and potentially decreasing pollution.

But on a larger scale, it’s important that the processes that we’re working on with optimization and aerodynamics will apply to more than just wind turbines.”

Their work on wind farms includes several projects. With funding from the National Science Foundation they are seeking better understanding on the aerodynamics of complex wind turbine wake interactions. They have also been working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) over the last seven years on wind farm optimization. This partnership has produced a host of publications, open-source tools and new techniques to optimize wind farms.

One postdoctoral researcher, eight doctoral students, and around 10 undergraduates are currently participating in research with the lab.

Despite setbacks like the pandemic and unique hurdles with each project, many associates of the FLOW Lab are united in their love for the challenge.

“These aircraft and wind energy design problems are complicated with many multidisciplinary interactions,” Ning said. “But that's perfect because using optimization techniques to explore complex design spaces is exactly what we like to do. There’s a lot of exciting new challenges in these fields.”

Visit the FLOW Lab website for more information about these projects and the researchers involved in them.