Imagine a box in which fluid is heated from below. The resulting buoyancy-driven motions in the fluid create distinctive patterns. The flow organizes into circular cells carrying heat to the top, a phenomenon known as Rayleigh–Bénard convection.
"In less extreme conditions you get predictable motion, but in real applications, you often get turbulence, which is a very interesting, complicated state. It is chaotic and irregular. In fact chaos theory and the ‘butterfly effect’ were discovered in a study of Rayleigh-Bénard convection in the 60s,” said Andrew Corbató, a senior in mechanical engineering (MECH), with a minor in computational and applied mathematics (CAAM), at Rice University.
“You see this turbulent convection everywhere,” he continued. “It’s in the ocean and in weather systems, in wind farms, in oil reservoirs, in building heating and cooling systems and in pots and pans when you cook.”
As an undergraduate researcher, Corbató’s adviser is Pedram Hassanzadeh, assistant professor of MECH and principal investigator in the Environmental Fluid Dynamics Group. Using the fluid- and heat-transfer physics learned in MECH and mathematical techniques learned in CAAM, Corbató now enjoys doing research at the intersection of these areas.
“Last fall in Fluid Mechanics 1, Andrew asked a lot of good questions. After he started working in my lab in the spring, he asked even better questions, questions that were unexpected and showed a lot of insight. Sometimes he’s a few steps ahead of me. He’ll say something like, ‘This didn’t make sense, so I did these other analyses to explain it’ which shows he has already anticipated my next question or suggestion,” Hassanzadeh said.
Among the problems explored by Hassanzadeh, Corbató and others in their group are environmental and geophysical flows, extreme weather events, reduced-order modeling, flow control in energy systems, and numerical and mathematical modeling of thermo-fluid processes. The group includes two postdoctoral fellows, two Ph.D. students, and four undergraduates.
In studying Rayleigh-Bénard convection, the group is looking for optimal flow patterns that carry the most heat. “There’s all sorts applications to this kind of work. It’s fundamental,” Corbató said. “Even heating and air conditioning, and weather forecasting. The kind of work we’re doing is a blend of mechanical engineering, applied math and some computer science.”
Corbató was born in Seattle and grew up in Salt Lake City. Both of his parents are Rice graduates. His mother is a physician in a pediatric intensive-care unit, and his father works in university IT leadership.
Corbató’s modeling of Rayleigh-Bénard convection enabled him to run simulations on the Wrangler and Stampede2 supercomputers at the University of Texas at Austin’s Advanced Computing Center. “I thank Dr. Hassanzadeh and the whole lab for their teaching and for allowing me to work with models of this size and complexity,” Corbató said.
“Andrew, as an undergraduate, is already doing work that’s publishable,” Hassanzadeh said.