Bui-Thanh, Yilmaz Honored for Sustained Research Excellence

Professors Tan Bui-Thanh and Ali Yilmaz are the 2019 recipients of the Peter O’Donnell Distinguished Research Award. Both are core faculty members at the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences.

The award recognizes sustained research contributions by an individual at the institute and provides $100,000 in research funding over four years.

Bui-Thanh is an associate professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at UT’s Cockrell School of Engineering. His scientific expertise is in areas of uncertainty quantification and inverse problem solving. His recent research has focused on developing methods for modeling magnetohydrodynamics, an important physical phenomena in astrophysical systems and confined fusion energy devices.

Nuclear fusion occurs when two hydrogen atoms are fused together – a process that produces an immense amount of energy while using a relatively small amount of fuel and producing no green house gasses. However, if the reaction is not controlled, all the powerful energy and forces are released in a single moment can produce damage to structures surrounding the plasma. Understanding the physics of a nuclear fusion disruption is critical for safely designing a future power facility where energy is created by fusion reactions.

A key part of the research involves developing physics-aware algorithms that can produce realistic results without large amounts of data, Bui-Thanh said. These algorithms are in contrast to machine-learning algorithms, which discover behaviors and trends by noticing patterns in datasets, and then apply those learned patterns when solving problems. However, the lack of experimental data on fusion reactions means that the algorithm can’t depend on past experience to make a prediction; instead it must accurately model the physics of an inputted scenario.

Bui-Thanh said that the results of these models, in turn, are helping inform the conditions of actual experiments on fusion reactions.

“There is a limited amount of data. If we don’t exploit the underlying physics, the governing equations, we have no hope for a good prediction,” said Bui-Thanh, whose current research partners include Sandia and Los Alamos National Labs.

Yilmaz is the Director of the Electromagnetics and Acoustics Group at the Oden Institute as well as a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the UT Cockrell School of Engineering. His scientific expertise is in computational electromagnetics, with an overarching focus on advancing physics-based algorithms and the trade-off between errors and costs of computational solutions to problems faced by engineers and scientists.

Currently, Yilmaz and students apply that research perspective across three primary projects: scientific benchmarking of different algorithms for predicting radar returns of complex airborne objects, a project sponsored by Lockheed Martin; developing scalable algorithms that can accurately simulate electrical performance of high-speed high-performance electronic packages, a project sponsored by Intel; and a National Science Foundation-sponsored cybersecurity project to develop methods that can predict critical information “leaking” through electromagnetic channels from software deployed on chips.

“In all our projects, my students and I welcome complexity,” Yilmaz said. “We pursue solution methods that efficiently use the tremendous computing power available and at the same time preserve the predictive power of mathematical physics.”

Both Bui-Thanh and Yilmaz said they plan to use the award funding in the same way: to support the graduate students and postdocs who are a critical part of driving the research forward.

Posted: Sept. 26, 2019