Here is a model of how air flows around a tractor-trailer rig traveling on the highway.
updated 2/9/2011 6:15:39 PM ET 2011-02-09T23:15:39

Supercomputer simulations of airflow have shown that outfitting long-haul tractor trailers with special wind deflectors can cut down on the trucks' fuel needs. By making big rigs more aerodynamic, the technology has the potential to save millions of gallons of fuel.

The simulations were run on one of the fastest supercomputers in the world, the Cray XT-5 "Jaguar." Housed at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee, the supercomputer is the most powerful available in the United States.

BMI Corp., a company in South Carolina, designed the aerodynamic add-ons for trucks, known as the SmartTruck UnderTray System. The system consists of a set of integrated aerodynamic truck parts, including undercarriage ramp- and box-shaped components and side flaps, for 18-wheeler (Class 8) rigs.

The components in red represent the UnderTray System. Vehicles outfitted with the components would look little different on the road from trucks without the system.

If all 1.3 million Class 8 trucks in the U.S. were configured with these components, companies could achieve annual savings of 1.5 billion gallons of diesel fuel – about equal to $5 billion in costs – and reductions of carbon dioxide by 16.4 million tons.

The work on the Cray XT-5 Jaguar shortened the computing turnaround time for BMI's complex models from days to a few hours and eliminated the need for costly and time-consuming physical prototypes.

In all, running simulations on Jaguar allowed BMI to go from concept to a design that could be turned over to a manufacturer in 18 months instead of the 3.5 years they had anticipated.

"The Department of Energy's supercomputers provide an enormous competitive advantage for the United States," said DOE Secretary Steven Chu. "This is a great example of how investments in innovation can help lead the way to new jobs, new ways of cutting our carbon emissions and new opportunities for America to succeed in the global marketplace."

With installation of BMI's SmartTruck UnderTray System to improve the aerodynamics of Class 8 long-haul trucks, the typical big rig can achieve fuel savings of between 7 percent and 12 percent, easily meeting the new California Air Resources Board mandate that calls for a minimum mileage improvement of 5 percent.

Jaguar has a theoretical peak computational capability of 2.3 petaflops (2.3 quadrillion mathematical operations per second) making it more than 100,000 times more powerful than a typical home laptop.

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