Research Snapshot: Research looks to improve protection against disasters


By Jennifer Matthews

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – A Penn State researcher is developing new computational methods that will improve the quality of modeling extreme events due to natural and man-made disasters.

“Everyone is vulnerable to different kinds of disasters and different kinds of extreme conditions,” said Michael Hillman, L. Robert and Mary L. Kimball Assistant Professor of civil engineering. “The drive behind my research is to advance protection against these kinds of events.”

Hillman is developing a mesh-free method that circumvents issues that are frequently present when using traditional mesh-based finite element methods to model extreme events.

In the finite element method, the domain is divided into small pieces called elements in order to represent the physical problem. The elements are connected to one another through what is called a mesh.

“Irregular meshes lead to inaccurate solutions, so the quality of the mesh dictates the quality of the numerical solution,” Hillman said.

When modeling events such as blast waves on structures, high velocity impact and landslides, severe inaccuracies or even complete breakdown of the simulation can occur if the mesh becomes entangled or too distorted.

“Those types of events are very difficult for numerical methods to handle,” Hillman said. “So you have to develop special techniques to handle them effectively.”

Hillman’s mesh-free computational modeling method offers features that are particularly appealing for modeling these extreme events.

Rather than using mesh to perform the simulation, which is problematic, mesh-free methods use only points to represent the physical problem. Consequently, the mesh distortion and entanglement associated with extreme event modeling when using traditional methods are avoided.

While past mesh-free methods could lead to poor accuracy and stability of the simulation, Hillman’s stabilized variationally consistent integration (VCI) mesh-free method ensures that high accuracy is achieved, and stable, reliable solutions are obtained.

This modeling technology is useful to anyone who wants to protect against extreme events, whether it’s to design new buildings that are more resilient to earthquakes or to evaluate the possible damage to structures or humans from a terrorist attack.

“We are producing tools that engineers can use to build better protection against disasters,” Hillman said.

Going forward, Hillman will develop methods to model tsunamis, hydraulic fracturing and develop methods for designing better materials resilient to extreme conditions.

Hillman began his investigation at the University of California, Los Angeles in 2009 and joined the Penn State faculty in 2016 where he continues his research.


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Jennifer Matthews

computational modeling

Progressive deformation in a landslide simulation.  

computational modelingPerforation of steel plates by a projectile and comparison to experiment.

Research code courtesy of J. S. Chen, Nonlinear Meshfree Analysis Program (NMAP), UC San Diego, 2014

“Everyone is vulnerable to different kinds of disasters and different kinds of extreme conditions,” said Hillman. “The drive behind my research is to advance protection against these kinds of conditions.”


Michael Hillman



The Penn State Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, established in 1881, is internationally recognized for excellence in the preparation of undergraduate and graduate engineers through the integration of education, research, and leadership.

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