Who hasn’t experienced the teeth gnashing frustration of running late to work or an important event, only to get snarled in the tangled mess of a traffic jam? While many accept traffic jams as an annoying but unavoidable aspect of urban living, mechanical engineering assistant professor Morris Flynn views them as an exciting research challenge with the potential to dramatically improve the commuting experience.
“Whereas many traffic jams arise because of bad weather, lane closures, or roadway bottlenecks, many others occur because of an overcapacity of vehicles on the roadway,” Flynn says, explaining traffic jams arising without an apparent cause are known as phantom jams. Because drivers have to change their speed frequently and often quite suddenly, phantom jams are a hot spot for vehicular accidents.
Along with his colleagues at MIT, KAUST, McGill, and Temple, Flynn is building on existing research to develop mathematical models of the underlying dynamics and complicated behavior behind phantom jams, with the eventual aim of improving traffic control algorithms to maximize roadway efficiency.
“We’ve made a quantitative analogy between the equations that describe phantom jams and those from ostensibly different fields such as shallow water flow, fluid mechanics, gas dynamics and kinetics, astrophysics, and detonation theory,” says Flynn. “This allows us to draw novel inferences and, in principle, to develop control strategies that minimize jam severity and thereby reduce the likelihood of collisions.”
Complementing a department that supports and encourages cutting-edge research in diverse fields, Flynn is also conducting research on low energy building ventilation, plastron respiration by aquatic insects, and environmental fluid mechanics.
In this latter respect and by combining theory, laboratory experiments, and numerical simulations, Flynn’s research into environmental fluid mechanics focuses on air pollution. “When pollution is emitted to the environment it invariably has a different density than the surrounding ambient fluid,” Flynn explains. “The flow of this pollution will be driven by density differences in much the same way cold air infiltrates one’s house during winter.”
By combining theory, laboratory experiments, and numerical simulations, Flynn and his students are developing models to predict not only where emitted pollution will ultimately end up, but at what concentration. “We have contributed to the fundamental understanding of the flow dynamics in instances where the ambient fluid is itself density-stratified, meaning rather than being uniformly comprised of the same fluid everywhere it might instead be comprised of different layers that each have a distinct temperature.”
The ultimate goal of Flynn’s research is to reduce human exposure to pollution from nearby industries. “I selected this areas of research as it is a good opportunity to combine theory and experiments, and then apply the knowledge learned to an area of direct relevance to human health and environmental stewardship,” he says.
In addition to research, Flynn is also passionate about teaching. “In a knowledge-based economy in which people have ready access to near limitless amounts of information, I think it's especially critical to train our students to be critical thinkers who can apply novel approaches in solving relevant engineering problems,” he says.
Flynn counts among his greatest achievements a 2010 Undergraduate Teaching Award by the Faculty of Engineering in recognition of his outstanding contributions to engineering education. “I very much enjoy interacting with students and imparting the knowledge and insights I've accrued during a professional career that every day presents new challenges and opportunities,” he says.