BERKELEY -- Phillip Colella, a mathematician and leader of the Applied
Numerical Algorithms Group at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center
(NERSC), has been named as the recipient of the IEEE Computer Society's 1998 Sidney
Fernbach Award, given each year to one person who has made "an outstanding
contribution in the application of high performance computers using innovative
Presented during SC98, the annual conference on high-performance networking and
computing, the award is named for one of the pioneers in the development and application
of supercomputers for solving large computational problems. The award is sponsored by the
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Computer Society. Colella will receive
the award on Thursday, Nov. 12, at the conference in Orlando, Fla.
Colella, who has been a staff member of NERSC and the Computing Sciences Directorate at
the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory since 1996, is being
recognized "For fundamental contributions in the development of software
methodologies used to solve numerical partial differential equations, and their
application to substantially expand our understanding of shock physics and other fluid
dynamics problems," according to a letter from Doris Carver, president of the IEEE
Mathematics, Colella says, exerts a tremendous intellectual pull and is a
"beautiful system" for solving theoretical problems with a very high level of
precision. In fact, Colella says, much of modern math was invented as scientists looked
for ways to learn more about mechanical systems, giving rise to such areas of study as
fluid dynamics. But until the advent of computers, it was difficult to take this
mathematical information and use it to accurately predict the behavior of specific
"Computing allows you to take this beautiful information and apply it to the real
world," says Colella, who earned his bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees in
math at UC Berkeley. "The computer 'reifies' mathematics -- it makes the abstract
Colella, who has worked primarily at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Lawrence
Livermore National Laboratory, now combines the fields of math and computing in the
development of algorithms aimed at better understanding such complex problems as fluid
dynamics. One key area of research is diesel combustion and Colella's group is creating
more accurate computer models of the process with a goal of increasing fuel efficiency and
The interior of an internal combustion engine is a hot, dirty environment for
conducting experiments. Making small changes in the valves, cylinder head or piston to try
to influence the combustion process can be expensive and time consuming.
Computer models, such as those being developed by Colella's group, can give researchers
a virtual look into the complicated process of fuel and air intake, combustion and
exhaust. Currently, combustion models can't entirely predict the combustion within an
engine, but they are getting closer. Progress is made by breaking the problem down into
smaller pieces, or subproblems, and tackling them individually.
"It's a complicated problem involving computer science, mathematics and
physics," Colella said. "The simulations have to respect the mathematics and
physics involved, yet be easy to use."
Colella's group is working with two of the nation's leading vehicle manufacturers to
develop more accurate models of combustion processes. These models will require even
greater computing resources, such as the 640-processor Cray T3E-900 supercomputer housed
in NERSC at Berkeley Lab.
Those models are then compared with experimental data, matching predictions with actual
"Applying more computing power will allow us to incorporate more details and
create better models," Colella says. "You can't just throw bigger computers at
the existing models, though. You have to create better models."
The next generation of simulation and modeling technology will arrive within five
years, Colella predicts. "Such models will allow engineers to explore many different
design options at much less expense."
NERSC (www.nersc.gov) provides high performance computing services to DOE's Energy
Research programs at national laboratories, universities, and industry. Berkeley Lab
(www.lbl.gov) conducts unclassified research and is managed by the University of