Flash Center turns 20, welcomes new director

October marks the 20th anniversary of the Flash Center for Computational Science. The center is the home of FLASH, a community code with applications in fields ranging from astrophysics to engineering and biology. The center does more than develop software for simulations, however; it is also a hub for research on high-energy density physics and laboratory astrophysics. 

As the center celebrates its 20th anniversary, Petros Tzeferacos, research assistant professor in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago, will step into the role of director of the center. After serving as director for 15 years, Don Lamb, the Robert A. Millikan Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, will become associate director. 

The birth of a versatile framework

The center was founded in 1998 under the directorship of Robert Rosner, the William E. Wrather Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, as part of the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI) – a research program funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to jumpstart the development of high-performance physics codes in the national labs and academia. Under Rosner’s and Lamb’s leadership, researchers in the center developed FLASH to study astrophysical processes that involved nuclear reactions, including supernovae explosions, x-ray bursts, and more. "Twenty years later, FLASH is being used by more than 3,000 scientists around the world to do cutting-edge research in plasma physics and astrophysics," said Tzeferacos. 

In 2009, the DOE brought online the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the most energetic laser in the world, and made it available to academic researchers. Lamb and the Flash Center were asked by the DOE to enable the code to simulate experiments at this facility, providing researchers with an open tool to design and tune their experiments before executing them with high-energy lasers at NIF and similar labs across the globe. 

According to Tzeferacos, the code's applications have continued to expand since then. "That's the beauty of FLASH," he said. "It's a versatile framework with which you can target a number of scientific applications, from fundamental plasma physics to proto-planetary disks, to galaxy formation simulations and cosmology, true to the diverse research in our department and aligned with the scientific goals of its faculty".

Turbulent dynamo and beyond

Tzeferacos was trained as a theoretical astrophysicist and developed a strong interest in applied mathematics while at the University of Turin in Italy. He joined the Flash Center in 2012 with the dream of studying the origin of cosmic magnetic fields in the lab. For decades, researchers had theorized that a process called 'turbulent dynamo' is responsible for amplifying cosmic magnetic fields to the magnitudes observed today in the universe. Recreating the necessary conditions for turbulent dynamo to work in a laboratory had been a long sought-after and challenging goal until the Flash Center and its collaborators from the University of Oxford began their concerted research effort. 

Several years of simulations with FLASH and experiments at the most powerful laser facilities in the world enabled Tzeferacos and his colleagues to demonstrate the turbulent dynamo mechanism in a controlled laboratory environment for the first time. Shortly after the paper was published, Lamb lauded the accomplishment: "People have dreamed of doing this experiment with lasers for a long time, but it really took the ingenuity of this team to make this happen."

Photo of the Experimental target used to demonstrate turbulent dynamo in the laboratory for the first tim

Experimental target used to demonstrate turbulent dynamo in the laboratory for the first time, at the OMEGA Laser Facility at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, University of Rochester. The target was designed with FLASH simulations. Credit: Eugene Kowaluk, Laboratory for Laser Energetics, University of Rochester 

Under Tzeferacos' leadership, the center’s scientists are expanding the physics and algorithms of FLASH to model plasma physics experiments with pulsed-power devices and to study fundamental astrophysical processes in magnetized plasmas. In addition, Flash Center researchers are restructuring the code to take advantage of the new supercomputing platforms that will usher in the exascale computing era. "High performance computing will always be a part of the center’s scope," Tzeferacos said. 

According to Tzeferacos, the training and mentoring of young researchers is central to the Flash Center’s mission. "The center has trained scores of postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduates to make sure that the future generation of scientists is well-versed in numerical modeling and code development," he said.

Tzeferacos is excited about the future of the center. "The Flash Center and UChicago’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics are a place where a unique synergy of plasma astrophysics and laboratory astrophysics can be realized," he said. "By modeling both astrophysical phenomena and the laboratory experiments that reveal their fundamental physical processes, we are creating a virtuous cycle that will lead to exciting discoveries and new understanding of the workings of the universe."