The Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowship supports new, out-of-the box ideas where researcher creativity intersects with the unknown. According to the Department of Defense, it is also its most prestigious single-investigator award. This year, Marco Panesi is one of just eight recipients.

Panesi is a Caterpillar Faculty Scholar in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the director of the Center for Hypersonics and Entry Systems Studies—a multidisciplinary team of researchers in The Grainger College of Engineering.

“This is probably the most interesting project I’ve ever written,” Panesi said. “It’s really nice to be unconstrained—to propose an idea without being worried that it might be rejected because it’s too out there. It pushes you to invent new things, new theories, new ideas, and you can take as much risk as you feel comfortable with. The only limit is your imagination.”

The fellowship is oriented toward bold and ambitious “blue sky” research that may lead to extraordinary outcomes, such as revolutionizing entire disciplines, creating entirely new fields, or disrupting accepted theories and perspectives.

Panesi’s research addresses fundamental questions in hypersonics and plasma physics, which is an important research area for the Department of Defense. The future of transportation, space exploration, and defense will critically depend on hypersonic capabilities that rely heavily on the availability of computationally efficient and accurate models for the description of plasma flows. Deficiencies in current state-of-the-art plasma models have prevented progress in the development of the next generation hypersonic systems.

Panesi’s revolutionary idea is to embody the physics of the Boltzmann equations – the governing equations used to study the dynamics of non-equilibrium plasma flows – in a more flexible and computationally efficient form.

“My proposal is to generalize Navier-Stokes with something which is much more powerful and has a broader application,” he said. “It’s a very bold goal—something that can be used for work with plasmas, for chemically reacting gases, but also for conventional flows like the flow over a car.”

The five-year fellowship with up to $3 million in funding allows Panesi to choose collaborators as well.

“I have a collaborator from the University of Michigan, Professor Karthik Duraisamy, who is an expert in computational mathematics,” Panesi said. “And, of course, the faculty members in CHESS will be at the center of the project because another one of the goals of the Vannevar Bush Fellowship is to train the next generation of scientists and engineers.”

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