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Faces of HPC: Zhi Chen

Zhi Chen is a research associate at the University of Cambridge. He researches Combustion Instability Simulations and he looks at turbulent combustion - the impact chemistry and flow physics have on each other. This is a huge phenomenon which changes the flow inside the engine and can cause problems. He uses HPC to perform massively parallel computations of turbulent flames and their interaction with acoustics inside gas turbine combustors.


Zhi Chen was always interested in making things move by using human intelligence, and he calls himself a perfectionist. He came across some problems in his career, but he persevered and overcame the challenges. He started using HPC early on in his PhD and finds it interesting how calculations that can never be done by the human brain in such a short time, but what the computer does is essentially very simple maths.


Tell us a bit about yourself.

I am from a small town of Hunan Province in the south of China. I first came to the UK through a “2+2” undergraduate exchange program between Huazhong University of Science and Technology and the University of Birmingham. I studied Mechanical Engineering in those four years before I came to Cambridge for my PhD. I have always been into motive mechanical devices, from bicycles to aircrafts because I enjoy making things move around using human intelligence!

What is your current job? Describe what you do in HPC. Is this your main interest, or something you fell into?

I currently work as a Research Associate at the University of Cambridge on Combustion Instability Simulations. I used HPC to perform massively parallel computation of turbulent flames and their interaction with acoustics inside gas turbine combustors. I started using HPC early in my PhD and carried out most of my simulations in the thesis using the local cluster Darwin at the University and the national HPC – ARCHER. It has been a great pleasure to use these facilities and I am very grateful to those who provided the computational resources.

How did you become interested in HPC? Briefly describe your path into HPC.

The demand for large-scale computing is drastically increasing in all fields of scientific research. The particular problem we are looking at, i.e., turbulent combustion, is a multi-scale, multi-dimensional and multi-physics phenomenon occurring in relatively large devices such as gas turbine and internal combustion engines. Thus, we need the power of supercomputers to solve these scales and physical processes. I started to get myself familiar with parallel computing through workshops and practice on my multi-core desktop. Then I moved to Darwin (Cambridge University HPC) for further exercises before launching my large computations on ARCHER.

 Is there something about you that’s given you a unique or creative approach to what you do?

Yes. I see myself a perfectionist in the illustration of my research and I try very hard, even though sometimes I spend too much time on it , constructing attractive but scientifically informative figures and animations for my publications and presentations.

Were there any challenges when you first entered the field? How have you overcome these, or do they continue to challenge you?

The challenges were enormous when I first entered the field of turbulent combustion. The literature and fundamental knowledge required to understand and to be able conduct research on this topic are as much as you would face in any subject. It also demands quite high computational and programming skills. Failure and frustration were there in my daily life during the beginning stages and all I could do was keep trying and learning bit by bit until a certain point where I could finally make the code work by myself and started producing useful results. Up until today, those challenges still remain in my research but now I can handle them quite confidently and actually enjoy tackling them. 

What’s the best thing about working in HPC?

The best thing I see is that using our understanding in physical and computer sciences we can make calculations that can never be done by the human brain in such a short time, and yet what the computer does is essentially the simplest floating-point calculations. I just find this extremely fascinating.

If there’s one thing about HPC you could change, what would it be?

I would enhance the communication between different users from different fields as I think sharing the information and experience is the key to push the whole community forward.

What’s next for you in HPC – where does your career lead you?

I will further upsize my calculations to push the boundary further for HPC calculation of turbulent combustion and convince our industrial partners to join for better research and development of their products.

Last updated: 06 Aug 2018 at 13:48