Engineers are using sophisticated models to clean plastic debris from oceans, optimize airflow in smog-filled cities, and make vehicles lighter and more efficient
This article was produced for Dassault Systèmes by Scientific American Custom Media, a division separate from the magazine’s board of editors
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch will soon start shrinking. In October, The Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit foundation based in the Netherlands, floated out and installed System 001 (nicknamed Wilson), to remove some of the rubbish floating on or just below the ocean’s surface. The patch of 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, which lies halfway between Hawaii and California, is roughly twice the size of Texas. System 001 is a 600-meter floating pipe, deployed in a U-shape, with a 3m-deep skirt. Without human intervention, once deployed, it takes advantage of three natural oceanic forces—wind, waves and currents—to travel faster than the plastic, which it then catches. “After 60 of these systems are deployed, they’ll reduce the area’s plastic by 50 per cent within five years,” says Bruno Sainte-Rose, computational modeler for The Ocean Cleanup.
System 001 is a major advance over conventional ocean cleanup methods such as vessels and nets—which need a crew, would take an exceptionally long time, and would cost tens of billions of dollars. Wilson’s unique structure and collection method were designed on 3D modeling software created by Dassault Systèmes. By using virtual modeling, The Ocean Cleanup team generated knowledge about the ideal design for System 001 faster and more accurately than they could with physical testing. “We’re embarking on a challenge that has never been tackled at this scale before,” says Sainte-Rose. “We’re relying very heavily on simulation to test our tool in many different scenarios before going full scale and investing a lot of money.”
The use of 3D modeling is accelerating. According to market-research firm Gartner, nearly half of organizations embracing the Internet of Things (IoT) say they are using, or plan to use, digital twins—virtual counterparts of a real object. Scientists too are increasingly using simulation to conduct hundreds of experiments before going ahead with the real one in the lab. In addition to cleaning oceans, simulations are helping to solve other environmental concerns, such as optimizing cities to withstand disasters and ease air pollution. Modeling is also helping product designers to better define a material’s physical properties at the molecular level to, for example, build more efficient batteries for autonomous vehicles, or lighter airplanes that use less fuel. All of which can help to shape smarter and more efficient cities and environments.