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Fluid modelling shapes commercial successes

Fluid modelling approaches devised by the Materials and Engineering Research Institute (MERI) have impacted on industrial partners improving understanding of commercial products and processes. Projects they have worked on include an ink-droplet dispenser module invented at the multinational Kodak. Their computer simulation algorithms have also been adopted by industrial research professionals and made available as internationally distributed software. Finally, the group has developed, presented and disseminated simulation-based materials and visualisations at major public understanding of science events.

The research

Materials modelling has been a continuous element in MERI’s research activity since the 1980s. The simulation methodologies developed by the MERI modelling group over the last 20 years represent an unrivalled suite of modelling tools for LCD design and optimization. No other group in the world can offer molecular, coarse-grained, Lattice Boltzmann (LB) and mesh-free modelling of liquid crystals (LCs). The group’s standing in this field originates from a 1994-2002 collaboration with DERA/QinetiQ. Care and Cleaver led a series of research projects relating to molecular and mesoscopic computer simulation of LC behaviour. Cleaver and Care, working with DERA/QinetiQ, identified an industrial need for a methodology that could model the switching behaviour of LCDs and developed a generalised LB simulation approach for LCs.

Equipped with this technology, the MERI modelling group secured EPSRC support and a significant research contract with SEIKO-Epson (2001-3) to develop, evaluate and document a mesoscopic LCD simulator. Care went on to lead a DTI-supported project with ZBD Displays. The result was the first full device solver capable of modelling the switching behaviour of a LCD. Further innovations led by Cleaver led to the development of a fundamentally different “mesh-free” approach for LCD modelling that was industrially tested in 2009 through a collaboration with Hewlett-Packard Labs, Bristol.

In parallel with their developments on LC modelling, from 1997 the MERI modelling group also established an expertise in LB simulation of isotropic fluids, particularly immiscible multiphase-flows. Here, using support from both industry and research councils, Care and Halliday focussed on the development of mathematical descriptions and simulation algorithms for fluid-fluid interfaces. In the context of engineering flows, this led to a number of collaborative projects, with partners including BNFL, Rolls Royce Associates, Fluent, Cadbury and Kodak. The developments made with Fluent, on algorithm refinement, went on to form the basis of a collaboration on haemodynamics with Harvard Medical School. The modelling group’s LB expertise was also used in Knowledge Transfer interventions with Fluid Maintenance Solutions and Nestlé.

The impact

In the REF impact period, the MERI modelling group’s simulation expertise has achieved economic impact through improved product and process understanding, illustrated here in the contexts of a small company (Fluid Maintenance Solutions), an SME (ZBD Displays) and a multinational (Kodak).

Fluid Maintenance Solutions (FMS) is a South-Yorkshire-based small company specialising in the recovery of high value metals contained within sump sludges. FMS first engaged with the MERI modelling group in 2008 via the coordinated Knowledge Transfer activity Nanofactory. During a sustained intervention, Halliday determined the key decontamination mechanism in FMS’s recycling process and developed a LB-based model to simulate it. His final report set out simulations he had performed to investigate effects underpinning the decontamination stage of FMS’s re-cycling process. This report enabled FMS to substantiate its claims to customers. It went on to make two successful TSB funding applications and in 2012 it was shortlisted for an Advanced Manufacturing Award.

ZBD Displays is a UK technology company spun out from QinetiQ in 2000. Its core business is based on a very-low-energy LCD display, which it has successfully directed towards the niche market of shelf-edge labelling for retail. ZBD Displays engaged the MERI modelling group on a 24 month DTI- funded project to investigate operational details of the ZBD device, followed by a further 6 months of company-funded research. The enhancements identified were ultimately judged insufficient to warrant a change in production. In this way it provided the company with unambiguous capability limits for its device hardware, contributing to a shift in the company’s focus from hardware to software. ZBD Displays has thrived since this collaboration. In 2012 it achieved sales of £12m and was ranked 5th in the Sunday Times League Table of the UK’s fastest growing technology firms.

In 2007-08, the MERI modelling group worked with Kodak’s then European Research Lab in Cambridge to study an ink-droplet dispenser module developed to enhance the capabilities of high-speed digital printers. In a study led by Care, LB simulations using MERI’s immiscible fluid algorithms confirmed there was a sound basis for droplet uniformity in patented module geometry developed by Kodak. Whilst Kodak itself underwent global restructuring, the relevant patent remained active because the module’s inventors – Kodak employees – negotiated rights to exploit the device outside of printing through a new company Imbrys.

As well as working with a range of industrial groups, the MERI modelling group also has a track record of achieving uptake of its simulation algorithms by other modelling professionals. Direct uptake includes that by modellers at Kodak (USA) and Petrobras (Brazil) who have utilised the MERI group’s LB algorithms to simulate industrially-relevant systems. The group has contributed actively to the development DL_MESO a commercially-available simulation package developed and disseminated by the Computational Science Group at the STFC Daresbury laboratory. Downloads of the DL_MESO software in 2013 totalled 637, of which 574 were from outside the UK.

The final impact achieved by the MERI modelling group relates to public understanding of science (PUS) activities undertaken by Cleaver. Under the auspices of the British Liquid Crystal Society, Cleaver developed a live interactive computer simulation application for the PUS stand. The “Liquid Crystals: Living Cells and Flat Screen TVs” stand was presented to Her Majesty the Queen, David Willets MP, and many other dignitaries at the opening event. The Royal Society then nominated it for inclusion in the 30,000-footfall Big Bang event in 2011 at Excel Arena, London. Big Bang evaluated the LC stand as “Excellent”. Cleaver’s live interactive computer simulation application was posted on the NSF-funded Soft Matter World website where it has achieved downloads from 5 continents of around 80 per month.

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