Karthik Duraisamy, an assistant professor in the Aerospace Engineering Department and his team received a $4.2 million grant from the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratories and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research to investigate computational simulations related to rocket engine safety. 

Duraisamy said the problem his team hopes to solve for the Air Force is designing systems to make rocket takeoff safer. He emphasized that his team members are not rocket builders — that they are just refining a computer simulation that helps catalyze the design cycle.

“Instead of designing, building, testing, blowing up and going back to the drawing board, what we want to do is run simulations of it virtually on computers,” Duraisamy said. 

His project focuses on streamlining the process using computers rather than overhauling rocketry in general.

“You still have to design, build and test, but you don’t have to design, build and test 50 designs — maybe you can just do three or four and substitute the rest of the information with computational simulations,” Duraisamy said. “So that’s our expertise — we are experts in computational modeling and simulation in this case of rocket combustors, but in general, many aerospace systems.”

Duraisamy also shared his thoughts on the technology being used for purposes that stray from its original intent.

“We give them efficient computational simulation techniques that they can use, so in some sense we are like tool-builders,” he said. “And that is all of basic science. If you take anything — if you take semiconductors, they were designed because of basic research and how they are used can be for good purposes or it can be used for evil purposes.”

He remained optimistic the project would have benevolent applications even if the Air Force’s agenda were to turn in a different direction.

“This is probably less likely to go into a missile than going into space and launching something,” Duraisamy said. 

Ph.D. candidate Nicholas Arnold, a member of Duraisamy’s team, said even those who intend to create weapons are not always responsible for their ramifications.

“Our research is generally for the research’s sake,” Arnold said. “If you read some books on the first stealth fighters and stuff like that — like the F-117 — Skunk Works and Lockheed Martin didn’t do the research that came up with the theory that made stealth work. Actually, the guy who found it found it in a paper that was published by a Soviet researcher.”

Assistant research scientist J.P. Sheehan, who works on electrical propulsion of rockets, spoke more generally on grants coming into the University.

“On one side, there’s money coming in to support students on an hourly basis, but also from a project standpoint, when a new project comes in, that means there’s going to be lots of work to do,” Sheehan said. “The fact that research going on at Michigan is very cutting-edge on the academic side and industry side is really important and adds a lot to the prestige of the degree.”

Captain Benjamin Song, assistant professor of aerospace studies concurred, saying grants like this one improve the standing of the University and the Air Force, and improve on already strong relations between the two. He said the effects of a good relationship can be felt by even by Air Force ROTC cadets who are majoring in aerospace engineering.

Duraisamy pointed out that the grant would also help the University on the recruiting front because it bolsters his reputation as a mentor.

“I always liken recruiting grad students and undergrads to recruiting basketball players — it’s the same thing, they have all of us from many different places and then they go with a coach,” he said.

Duraisamy talked about how the grant coming from a public entity was especially meaningful.

“Federal government research is always more adventurous, we all covet federal government funds,” he said. “We can propose very risky projects and it’s typically okay whereas private is a little bit more conservative.”

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