Page 96 - UCT Research Report 2011

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UCT Research Report '11
The many applications of
computing at UCT
Arguably the pioneer of high-performance
computing (HPC) at UCT, the Centre for
Research in Computational and Applied
Mechanics, or CERECAM, has blazed a
trail since its founding in the 1980s. And
its trajectory perhaps best mirrors the
evolution of high-performance computing
at the university.
Established in 1981 by the late Professor John Martin, it
had its origins in the small Non-linear Structural Mechanics
Research Unit, the group’s name not even meriting the use
of the word
, or a variation thereof, just yet. The
word didn’t feature in the unit’s name in 1985, either, when
it became the Applied Mechanics Research Unit.
Only with its renaming as CERECAM in 1988 – when
it was granted centre status by the Foundation for
Research Development, now the National Research
Foundation – was its tool of choice formally introduced
into the moniker.
“Globally, computational mechanics and high-
performance computing were just starting to take off,”
recalls Professor Daya Reddy, one of Professor Martin’s
protégés and CERECAM director. “What we were doing
here at UCT was pioneering work.”
Since then, says Professor Reddy, there has been a
“wonderful synergy” between the growth of both computing
power and the fields of theoretical computational
mathematics and mathematical modelling, which underpin
CERECAM’s work in computational mechanics.
Researchers in the centre have sought to develop
simulations of a variety of phenomena that involve the
principles of mechanics. These include biomechanics,
such as the study of myocardial infarctions (heart
attacks); solid mechanics, for example the behaviour of
metallic crystals at the micron level; the flow of particles in
mining slurries; and even the interplay between electricity
and mechanics in synthetic polymers such as hydrogels.
A further major area of focus is computational fluid
dynamics, that is, the flow of fluids, be it gases, air around
a vehicle, or biological fluids, such as blood. The centre
has, for example, partnered with UCT’s Department
of Chemical Engineering to investigate the complex
reactions between solids, liquids and gases common to
the platinum mining industry.
“In many cases, the algorithms and codes that we
develop can only sensibly be run on clusters or other
high-performance computing platforms, which today are
a necessity rather than a luxury,” says Professor Reddy.
“Many of the issues we deal with are of universal concern,”
says Professor Reddy, “but a number are specifically
South African, in the sense that they are derived from
problems experienced in South African industry.”
Going where no experimenter has
gone before
This rule applies also to the research in computational
chemistry and biophysics, which is led by Professor
Kevin Naidoo, who holds the DST/NRF SARChI Chair in
Scientific Computing and whose pioneering work was
recently recognised when he was named a finalist in the
2011/12 National Science and Technology Forum-BHP
Billiton Awards.
Bringing to bear state-of-the-art computational techniques
and HPC, Professor Naidoo and his team in UCT’s
Scientific Computing Research Unit (SCRU) have been
able to go where experiments cannot yet go. As such,
they’ve studied everything from the physical properties
of carbohydrates and a group of molecules known as
dendrimers (useful as a delivery mechanism in the design
of drugs), to the behaviour of metals such as platinum in
the mining refinery process.
In 2011, they unravelled the mechanisms of the deadly
protein ricin, a toxin found naturally in castor beans. This
finding (for which they were granted a patent) will, they
hope, lead to the discovery of an antidote.
However, Professor Naidoo and his team have not only
focused on applications in chemistry and biophysics.
Through their research supported by the Nvidia Corporation
and working closely with the likes of the USA-based
“Globally, computational mechanics
and high-performance computing
were just starting to take off. What
we were doing here at UCT was
pioneering work.”