Turbulence is ubiquitous in environmental and engineering fluid flows, and is encountered routinely in everyday life. A better understanding of these turbulent processes could provide valuable insights across a variety of research areas — improving the prediction of cloud formation by atmospheric transport and the spreading of wildfires by turbulent energy exchange, understanding sedimentation of deposits in rivers, and improving the efficiency of combustion in aircraft engines to reduce emissions, to name a few. However, despite its importance, our current understanding and our ability to reliably predict such flows remains limited. This is mainly attributed to the highly chaotic nature and the enormous spatial and temporal scales these fluid flows occupy, ranging from energetic, large-scale movements on the order of several meters on the high-end, where energy is injected into the fluid flow, all the way down to micrometers (μm) on the low-end, where the turbulence is dissipated into heat by viscous friction.

A powerful tool to understand these turbulent flows is the direct numerical simulation (DNS), which provides a detailed representation of the unsteady three-dimensional flow-field without making any approximations or simplifications. More specifically, this approach utilizes a discrete grid with small enough grid spacing to capture the underlying continuous equations that govern the dynamics of the system (in this case, variable-density Navier-Stokes equations, which govern all fluid flow dynamics). When the grid spacing is small enough, the discrete grid points are enough to represent the true (continuous) equations without the loss of accuracy. While this is attractive, such simulations require tremendous computational resources in order to capture the correct fluid-flow behaviors across such a wide range of spatial scales.

The actual span in spatial resolution to which direct numerical calculations must be applied depends on the task and is determined by the Reynolds number, which compares inertial to viscous forces. Typically, the Reynolds number can range between 102 up to 107 (even larger for atmospheric or interstellar problems). In 3D, the grid size for the resolution required scales roughly with the Reynolds number to the power of 4.5! Because of this strong scaling dependency, simulating such flows is generally limited to flow regimes with moderate Reynolds numbers, and typically requires access to high-performance computing systems with millions of CPU/GPU cores.

In “A TensorFlow simulation framework for scientific computing of fluid flows on tensor processing units”, we introduce a new simulation framework that enables the computation of fluid flows with TPUs. By leveraging latest advances on TensorFlow software and TPU-hardware architecture, this software tool allows detailed large-scale simulations of turbulent flows at unprecedented scale, pushing the boundaries of scientific discovery and turbulence analysis. We demonstrate that this framework scales efficiently to accommodate the scale of the problem or, alternatively, improved run times, which is remarkable since most large-scale distributed computation frameworks exhibit reduced efficiency with scaling. The software is available as an open-source project on GitHub.

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Large-scale scientific computation with accelerators

The software solves variable-density Navier-Stokes equations on TPU architectures using the TensorFlow framework. The single-instruction, multiple-data (SIMD) approach is adopted for parallelization of the TPU solver implementation. The finite difference operators on a colocated structured mesh are cast as filters of the convolution function of TensorFlow, leveraging TPU’s matrix multiply unit (MXU). The framework takes advantage of the low-latency high-bandwidth inter-chips interconnect (ICI) between the TPU accelerators. In addition, by leveraging the single-precision floating-point computations and highly optimized executable through the accelerated linear algebra (XLA) compiler, it’s possible to perform large-scale simulations with excellent scaling on TPU hardware architectures.

This research effort demonstrates that the graph-based TensorFlow in combination with new types of ML special purpose hardware, can be used as a programming paradigm to solve partial differential equations representing multiphysics flows. The latter is achieved by augmenting the Navier-Stokes equations with physical models to account for chemical reactions, heat-transfer, and density changes to enable, for example, simulations of cloud formation and wildfires.

It’s worth noting that this framework is the first open-source computational fluid dynamics (CFD) framework for high-performance, large-scale simulations to fully leverage the cloud accelerators that have become common (and become a commodity) with the advancement of machine learning (ML) in recent years. While our work focuses on using TPU accelerators, the code can be easily adjusted for other accelerators, such as GPU clusters.

This framework demonstrates a way to greatly reduce the cost and turn-around time associated with running large-scale scientific CFD simulations and enables even greater iteration speed in fields, such as climate and weather research. Since the framework is implemented using TensorFlow, an ML language, it also enables the ready integration with ML methods and allows the exploration of ML approaches on CFD problems. With the general accessibility of TPU and GPU hardware, this approach lowers the barrier for researchers to contribute to our understanding of large-scale turbulent systems.

Framework validation and homogeneous isotropic turbulence

Beyond demonstrating the performance and the scaling capabilities, it is also critical to validate the correctness of this framework to ensure that when it is used for CFD problems, we get reasonable results. For this purpose, researchers typically use idealized benchmark problems during CFD solver development, many of which we adopted in our work (more details in the paper).

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One such benchmark for turbulence analysis is homogeneous isotropic turbulence (HIT), which is a canonical and well studied flow in which the statistical properties, such as kinetic energy, are invariant under translations and rotations of the coordinate axes. By pushing the resolution to the limits of the current state of the art, we were able to perform direct numerical simulations with more than eight billion degrees of freedom — equivalent to a three-dimensional mesh with 2,048 grid points along each of the three directions. We used 512 TPU-v4 cores, distributing the computation of the grid points along the x, y, and z axes to a distribution of [2,2,128] cores, respectively, optimized for the performance on TPU. The wall clock time per timestep was around 425 milliseconds and the flow was simulated for a total of 400,000 timesteps. 50 TB data, which includes the velocity and density fields, is stored for 400 timesteps (every 1,000th step). To our knowledge, this is one of the largest turbulent flow simulations of its kind conducted to date.

Due to the complex, chaotic nature of the turbulent flow field, which extends across several magnitudes of resolution, simulating the system in high resolution is necessary. Because we employ a fine-resolution grid with eight billion points, we are able to accurately resolve the field.

Contours of x-component of velocity along the z midplane. The high resolution of the simulation is critical to accurately represent the turbulent field.

The turbulent kinetic energy and dissipation rates are two statistical quantities commonly used to analyze a turbulent flow. The temporal decay of these properties in a turbulent field without additional energy injection is due to viscous dissipation and the decay asymptotes follow the expected analytical power law. This is in agreement with the theoretical asymptotes and observations reported in the literature and thus, validates our framework.

Solid line: Temporal evolution of turbulent kinetic energy (k). Dashed line: Analytical power laws for decaying homogeneous isotropic turbulence (n=1.3) (Ⲧl: eddy turnover time).Solid line: Temporal evolution of dissipation rate (ε). Dashed line: Analytical power laws for decaying homogeneous isotropic turbulence (n=1.3).

The energy spectrum of a turbulent flow represents the energy content across wavenumber, where the wavenumber k is proportional to the inverse wavelength λ (i.e., k ∝ 1/λ). Generally, the spectrum can be qualitatively divided into three ranges: source range, inertial range and viscous dissipative range (from left to right on the wavenumber axis, below). The lowest wavenumbers in the source range correspond to the largest turbulent eddies, which have the most energy content. These large eddies transfer energy to turbulence in the intermediate wavenumbers (inertial range), which is statistically isotropic (i.e., essentially uniform in all directions). The smallest eddies, corresponding to the largest wavenumbers, are dissipated into thermal energy by the viscosity of the fluid. By virtue of the fine grid having 2,048 points in each of the three spatial directions, we are able to resolve the flow field up to the length scale at which viscous dissipation takes place. This direct numerical simulation approach is the most accurate as it does not require any closure model to approximate the energy cascade below the grid size.

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Spectrum of turbulent kinetic energy at different time instances. The spectrum is normalized by the instantaneous integral length (l) and the turbulent kinetic energy (k).

A new era for turbulent flows research

More recently, we extended this framework to predict wildfires and atmospheric flows, which is relevant for climate-risk assessment. Apart from enabling high-fidelity simulations of complex turbulent flows, this simulation framework also provides capabilities for scientific machine learning (SciML) — for example, downsampling from a fine to a coarse grid (model reduction) or building models that run at lower resolution while still capturing the correct dynamic behaviors. It could also provide avenues for further scientific discovery, such as building ML-based models to better parameterize microphysics of turbulent flows, including physical relationships between temperature, pressure, vapor fraction, etc., and could improve upon various control tasks, e.g., to reduce the energy consumption of buildings or find more efficient propeller shapes. While attractive, a main bottleneck in SciML has been the availability of data for training. To explore this, we have been working with groups at Stanford and Kaggle to make the data from our high-resolution HIT simulation available through a community-hosted web-platform, BLASTNet, to provide broad access to high-fidelity data to the research community via a network-of-datasets approach. We hope that the availability of these emerging high-fidelity simulation tools in conjunction with community-driven datasets will lead to significant advances in various areas of fluid mechanics.


We would like to thank Qing Wang, Yi-Fan Chen, and John Anderson for consulting and advice, Tyler Russell and Carla Bromberg for program management.

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