Faculty profile: Assist. Prof. Joshua Brinkerhoff

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Computational Fluid Dynamics researcher focuses on how flow instabilities impact the performance of the turbomachinery equipment used in aerospace, nuclear, and natural gas industries

Q: What is your background?

A: I grew up in the Okanagan and went to high school in West Kelowna. I was very interested in airplanes and flying and liked math and physics, so I enrolled in an Aerospace Engineering program at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ont. It has Canada’s first and oldest aerospace engineering undergraduate program, so it was an easy choice. I completed my Bachelors of Engineering in Aerospace with High Distinction in 2007 with a speciality in aerodynamics, propulsion, and vehicle performance. I did a year of co-op as well at the Flight Research Lab at the Institute for Aerospace Research at the National Research Council in Ottawa, where I helped develop a flight simulator for a Cessna Citation CJ1 business jet.

In my final undergrad year, I became interested in computational fluid dynamics (CFD), which uses computers to simulate fluid flows. I started a Masters of Applied Science at Carleton University to pursue this interest, where I used computers to simulate the flow over the rotating turbine blades inside an aircraft jet engine. This project grew into a PhD at Carleton University in which I performed a wide range of computer simulations to answer numerous important questions on how flow in a jet engine transitions from an orderly state (called “laminar” flow) to chaotic, disorderly flow (“turbulence”). My research was helpful in developing engineering tools used by Pratt & Whitney Canada for improving the safety, efficiency, environmental friendliness, and also reducing the noise of new jet engines. I completed my PhD in 2014.

PullquoteWhy did you become an engineer – who or what inspired you?

I became an engineer because I aspired to be an astronaut. I saw engineering as the perfect outlet for my love of flying, airplanes, and space. As I pursued my studies further, I found that engineering was also an ideal career to be involved in developing future technology and conducting scientific research that has tangible practical benefits. My natural love of learning and deep intellectual curiosity also made me gravitate towards becoming a researcher and professor.

What student experiences of your own do you count as a high point(s) and challenge(s)?

A high point as a student was making friends with other students who came from all over the world. I also cherished developing relationships with my professors, some of which had a lasting impact on my decision to pursue a career as a researcher and an educator. Once in fourth year, a professor in one of my courses asked me what I wanted to do with my degree, and I answered, “I want your job.” That professor later became my PhD supervisor.

A particular challenge I had as a student was juggling responsibilities. I got married and had children early, which presented some unusual challenges for a student. For instance, my oldest daughter was born on a Saturday, and I had my toughest exam on Monday morning! Coffee anyone? I hope that those experiences have made me more sympathetic to the various challenges that students face.

Why did you choose to work at UBC’s Okanagan campus – what brought you here?

Getting to work at UBC’s Okanagan campus is a dream come true. It is a new campus with a lot of energy. The faculty are very passionate and eager to try new things. It is very close-knit. I’m able to get to know my students and colleagues much easier than at a larger university. Also, I love the opportunities for inter- and multi-disciplinary research that are present here. Because it doesn’t have an established research program in aerodynamics, I can carve my own niche very easily while also collaborating with my peers. It has a strong mandate for involving undergraduate students in research, which establishes UBC Okanagan as a premier place for teaching and conducting research. Not to mention that Kelowna is one of the best cities in Canada and my own hometown!

What are your research interests and current projects?

In a nutshell, my research involves using computers to study fluid flows that are too large or too detailed to accurately measure with experiments. To this end, I have established the UBC Okanagan Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) Lab. My primary research focus is on how flow instabilities impact the performance of the turbomachinery equipment (such as compressors, turbines, and pumps) used in the aerospace, nuclear, and natural gas industries. My other interests include how lung disease affects the air flows in the lungs, how turbulence affects the recovery of phosphorus nutrients from wastewater streams, how methane gas travels in the air following a pipeline failure or tanker spill, and how the dispersion of forest-fire smoke affects air quality.

What is the significance of your research — what are the implications?

By using computers to accurately simulate how a fluid flows in a particular device or in the body, my research provides much greater visibility into what is going on in the flow. For instance, we can see how lung disease affects the airflow dynamics in the lung, which helps our understanding of common respiratory illnesses such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). We can identify ways to improve the safety, efficiency, and reliability of natural gas processing equipment, making equipment safer and less expensive to operate. We can provide insight into how forest-fire smoke gets dispersed in the local and far-field environments, improving forecasters ability to predict air quality and providing insight into public planning decisions.

What engineering compound, materials, or equipment do you find most fascinating, and why?

Of course, as a numerical scientist I have to say computers. Computational simulation has become a third medium of discovery, complementing theory and experimentation. Problems that were once too difficult or too expensive or too dangerous are now possible to study through numerical simulation on computers. I think that engineering will become increasingly computational, and it is an exciting place to be right now.

Tell me about your laboratory facilities – the kind of research you do there, the students, the equipment and their capabilities.

I and my students perform small to medium-sized research problems on a handful of personal computers in my lab or on a research cluster housed on campus. The cluster basically consists of hundreds of computers networked together in a very tight package to crunch numbers very quickly. For the large-sized problems, we conduct simulations using the Canada-wide Compute Canada platform and the WestGrid consortium, which is a network of the most powerful supercomputers at universities across Canada.

While my lab is still quite new, it is growing. Currently, I have had two undergraduate students involved through research internships, and a PhD student.

What most excites you about the future of applied sciences? About the School of Engineering?

I believe that applied science will be a major driver of economic diversification within the BC interior. Applied science and the School of Engineering in particular will provide the highly-trained people and the technological developments that are needed to strengthen the traditional industries while growing a new identify for the BC southern interior. As beautiful as the Okanagan is, I want people to know it as a hub of technology innovation and entrepreneurship. The School of Engineering is strategically located to accomplish this, and I’m really excited to be able to make a contribution.

What do you like about living in the Okanagan (special hobbies or interests outside of work)?

I’m an avid road biker and alpine skier, so I try to find time for those activities as much as possible. I love singing in my church’s music group and from time to time make a noble effort at playing the guitar and flute.

2 responses to “Faculty profile: Assist. Prof. Joshua Brinkerhoff”

  1. Elijah Cross

    That was an excellent read, keep up the good work Joshua.

  2. prameela

    Very impressive. You always motivates me Joshua. Keep going. All the best

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