ROLLS-Royce — which produces aircraft engines, among others — has to do extensive testing on engines to comply with safety and other regulations.

Each test on a real engine costs tens of thousands of pounds, says Daya Reddy, director of the Centre for Research in Computational and Applied Mechanics (Cerecam).

"But it can also be simulated to a high degree of accuracy. You cannot replace testing, but it means you can have two tests, rather than 10."

Cerecam is the University of Cape Town’s (UCT’s) computational modelling hub, a research centre comprising academic staff from six different academic departments and three faculties. These include the departments of mathematics and applied mathematics, civil and mechanical engineering, physics and even surgery.

"We are unique in the sense that we straddle a bunch of disciplines and departments, with a common core: computational science and engineering, with an emphasis on mechanics," Prof Reddy says.

He has been director of the centre since 1999 when it was established, although the professor notes that Cerecam has been present in various forms at UCT since the 1980s.

"We use computers to develop models and simulate natural and technological processes."

There are a number of specialisation areas, such as fluid and solid mechanics, bio-mechanics and particulate flow characterisation.

While that sounds rather esoteric — and some of the projects, such as mathematical modelling and numerical analysis, can be — many of these areas have direct real-world applications.

Cerecam’s 2011 annual report details a project researching therapies following myocardial infarction (heart attacks).

The World Health Organisation says that heart disease is the leading cause of death and disability in the world.

The organisation notes that an estimate 17.3-million people died from cardiovascular diseases in 2008, with this projected to increase to almost 23.6 million people by 2030.

The project — a collaboration involving Cerecam, the university’s Cardiovascular Research Unit and the University of Nottingham, and sponsored by the Centre for High Performance Computing — involves modelling the heart and the biomechanics of a heart attack. This involves representing the architecture of the soft heart tissue, the mechanics of the heart and the electrosensitivity of the muscle.

However, Prof Reddy says that biomechanics in Cerecam has developed over the past few years. Traditionally, the centre worked in solid and fluid dynamics, according to its annual report. "The simulation of fluid flows has a distinctly industrial flavour (and) most projects (in this areas) come from industry.

"For example, the flows in turbines: at an industrial level, these are massive structures, and companies needs to optimise the size and performance," he says.

There is also extensive collaboration with the Centre for Minerals Research, also within UCT, he says, citing the simulation of extracting minerals out of ore.

This means that the post-graduate students are usually co-supervised, Prof Reddy says: "We share students, projects.

"The idea is that students come from different departments, diverse backgrounds, but they are all doing computational modelling of some kind or another."

Last year, the centre had 25 master’s and 17 PhD candidates. Although Prof Reddy would not give an exact figure for the centre’s running costs, he said that his research chair covers a large chunk of the running costs as well as scholarships for students. The chair is funded by the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation (NRF).

Some projects are directly funded by industry.

"There is money to be found," Prof Reddy says.

"There is no excuse not to admit someone as a PhD student on financial grounds."

But he admits there are challenges: as with other NRF research chairs, "It’s not the money, it’s finding the students." He says that, since computational modelling is not well represented in South Africa, he often has to look abroad for additional students.

But even then, "people in this area are very sought after and the competition for top students is stiff".