Exploring Physical Modeling: New AE Faculty Member Takes an Interdisciplinary Approach


With recent advances in computational capabilities and quantum chemistry, a new range of engineering tools is at the disposal of scientists and engineers. Marco Panesi, new assistant professor in AE at Illinois, aims to focus his research efforts in physical modeling within the interdisciplinary fields of quantum chemistry, high performance computing, and computational fluid dynamics.


Assistant Professor Marco Panesi
Assistant Professor Marco Panesi
uses his improved physical models to study the detailed chemistry that occurs when a spacecraft re-enters an atmosphere such as Earth or Mars. “A shock wave forms around the vehicle upon re-entry,” he said. “Earth’s atmosphere is comprised mostly of nitrogen and oxygen. When the shock wave develops, chemical reactions occur near the spacecraft. These reactions are critical when determining the heat load to the vehicle surface.”

Previous models, mostly phenomenological in nature, have been developed to study these problems. These models were constructed from legacy experiments (performed in the 1950s and 1960s), because computational resources were limited. “Now we have access to better chemical databases formulated ab initio from quantum mechanics calculations,” he said.  “These databases enable researchers to construct improved physical models for use in a variety of engineering applications.”

The chemical processes and flow composition of the gas are critical to vehicle design, since the state of the gas defines the overall heat transfer to the surface of the vehicle.

“The composition of the gas has a dramatic effect on the heat flux,” Panesi said. “If we have a good estimate of the state of the gas, we hope to improve the predicted surface heating that will aid in design of thermal protection systems, for example.”

Panesi plans to take model development a step further, by incorporating uncertainty quantification to improve confidence in his model predictions.

“When you generate a model,” Panesi explains, “you introduce mathematical equations that describe the critical phenomena that are important to your design. When generating a model, uncertainty quantification can be used as a powerful tool to determine the confidence in your predictions.“ 

Panesi has worked on these types of problems for the past three years while a research scientist for the DOE-funded Center for Predictive Engineering and Computational Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. This work involved the modeling of very complex physical problems, but much understanding is still needed, according to Panesi.

To solve these problems Panesi has worked closely with chemists and experimentalists at the Electric Arc Shock Tube Facility at NASA Ames Research Center. He envisions reaching out to chemists on the Urbana campus, as well as working with AE Profs. Joanna Austin and Gregory Elliot, both experimentalists specializing in fluid mechanics, compressible flow and combustion.

While continuing his study of re-entry physics, Panesi will expand his research to parallel fields of combustion, as well as plasma discharges and plasma-assisted combustion.

Panesi earned his PhD in aerospace engineering in 2009 from von Kármán Institute for Fluid Dynamics (VKI) in Belgium, in cooperation with the Università degli Studi in Pisa, Italy. He earned a master’s degree in fluid dynamics in 2005 from VKI, and a master’s in aerospace engineering from Università di Pisa in 2003.

Panesi is a member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and a member of the European Community on Computational Methods in Applied Sciences. Among his honors have been the David Weaver Best Student Paper in Thermophysics at the 42nd Annual AIAA Conference; the 2011 Award for Fundamentals on Aerothermodynamics at the 7th Annual Symposium on Aerothermodynamics for Space Vehicles; a 2008 CTR Summer Program Fellowship at Stanford University; and NATO Fellowships for his master’s and PhD at VKI.

One of the mentors who advised Panesi to come to Illinois was Robert Moser, currently professor and Deputy Director of the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences at the University of Texas, and formerly a professor in the College of Engineering at Illinois. “He said he had a good experience here,” Panesi said of Moser. “He said (Illinois) is a very good university and was happy to learn that I would be joining the AE faculty.”