The Sound of Music
Computer scientist finds inspiration in classical piano and works to make nuclear energy safe.
When Cody Permann gets home from his day at Idaho National Laboratories (INL), where he works as a computational scientist designing computer simulation software for accident scenarios with nuclear reactors, he takes a seat at the piano. The music of Rachmaninoff and Beethoven, with its dramatic crescendos and quickening and slowing of tempos, fill his house.
On one hand, being enveloped by the music provides a necessary contrast to the chaotic pace of his day. On the other, playing the piano, which Permann’s done since age 5, is an extension of his work.
“You’d think that music was just a right-brain or creative activity,” Permann said. “And that mathematics and computer science are logical, left-brain activities. But I think they complement each other well. Music helps builds reasoning and spatial skills really early on while mathematics beautifully explains the melodies and harmonies we hear.”
Along with honing these proficiencies through the piano, Permann, an Idaho Falls native, also sharpened his childhood math skills playing with homemade electronics that belonged to his best friend’s dad, an electrical engineer whose shop was filled with breadboard circuits and computer parts.
He started his career at INL in 2000, after receiving his bachelor’s degree in computer science from Idaho State University. Through the University of Idaho’s College of Engineering Outreach Program, which has distance learning facilities at U of I Idaho Falls, Permann received his master’s degree in computer science in 2010. This spring, he’ll graduate from U of I Idaho Falls with his doctorate in computer science.
Permann’s dissertation emerged from his involvement with INL’s Multiphysics Object Oriented Simulation Environment team — known as MOOSE. He was approached by one of the group’s materials scientists to help develop a computerized modeling method that tests how polycrystalline structures, which are present in the metal components of nuclear reactors, behave when exposed to external stimuli like extreme temperatures, high mechanical pressures and radiation damage.
The goal was to predict, through computing rather than expensive experiments, how these materials might react in accident scenarios. With this knowledge, nuclear engineers could subsequently avoid disastrous situations.
While he was able to develop the necessary software for this project within the span of a few weeks, it was too slow to process the models on the scale desired.
For the next couple years, Permann focused his dissertation on improving the software, namely by enabling the simulation method to process large-scale 3-D models of polycrystalline structures being influenced by a complexity of behaviors — the heat conduction, mechanics and radiation — so scientists could perform multiphysics analysis.
Permann calls the method a “phase field polycrystalline model” that works specifically on finite elements, and it’s a new contribution to computational science.
MOOSE was released as open-source software in 2014 and contains Permann’s algorithms. The framework has become popular with scientists and engineers outside the nuclear power industry, too. It’s currently being used by the Australian government to analyze the impact of mining operations.
Permann is a proponent of nuclear energy, and he foresees its resurgence in the near future, especially as the country grows and demand for energy increases.
“We need a way to replace the base power load that the fossil fuel industry provides,” he said. “While renewable energies are good at supplementing, they’re unlikely to replace base loads. The wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine consistently enough.”
Permann also sees nuclear power as safer and more sustainable, in terms of environmental impact and the longevity of plants, than certain fossil fuels. Concerns surrounding past accidents at nuclear power plants, however, have kept engineers from being able to build newer, safer reactors for which they already have designs.
As long as the stigma surrounding nuclear energy persists, Permann worries that the U.S. will miss its opportunity to become energy independent. With Canada and France making significant strides in the industry, he even foresees the U.S. buying power from them if our country fails to reprioritize nuclear energy investments.
Most importantly, Permann doesn’t want to see another Fukushima disaster, or Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, which is where his simulation model comes in.
As with his music, he’s interested in creating a harmonious nuclear energy industry.
Article by Kate Keenan, College of Engineering