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Sponsored Feature: Fluid Simulation for Video Games (Part 2)

October 28, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 5 Next

Time evolution

Simulations evolve forward in time in discrete steps. Time evolution schemes include families of explicit and implicit techniques that have various accuracy and stability properties. The most straightforward scheme entails explicitly and directly integrating values forward in time, given information about previous times. The same schemes apply to ordinary differential equations used to simulate particle and rigid body motion.

Explicit methods solve for the future using information about the past. Varieties include Euler (Figure 8a), Runge-Kutta, and Midpoint (Figure 8b). The simplest method -- the forward Euler method -- is defined as

where is the quantity being evolved, is the time step, is the first time derivative, and is time. The forward Euler method is analogous to using a forward difference scheme (as in Figure 7a). The example PDE above, discretized in both time (using forward difference) and in space (using centered difference), becomes

Figure 8: Explicit timestepping. (a) Explicit Euler. (b) Midpoint "leapfrog".

Runge-Kutta methods combine multiple smaller steps to create a bigger step whose error is smaller than the combined errors of the smaller steps. The Midpoint method is analogous to using the centered-difference scheme (as in Figure 7c). It has higher-order accuracy than Euler with similar computational cost. Position and velocity "leapfrog" each other, so you would effectively keep track of two staggered simulations.

Applying this to each node i makes a system of linear algebraic equations. You could express that system of equations in matrix-vector form. The resulting matrix would be sparse (that is, have a lot of elements that are zero). Specialized linear algebra algorithms exist that exploit sparseness: You could use them to solve that system of equations.

Explicit methods are simple, but they can be tricky or slow to make stable. The Courant-Friedrichs-Lewy (CFL) condition establishes a relationship between spatial resolution and time step in some PDEs. Informally, this means that the time step must be smaller than the duration it takes for a bit of fluid to move from one grid cell to another (as Figure 9 shows). That implies that the faster the fluid motion, the smaller the time step, which implies more time steps, which implies more computational effort and a slower simulation.

If a numerical solution is unstable, errors grow rapidly without bound. One way to mitigate this is to damp out oscillations (for example, using viscosity). This prevents the solution from "exploding" but also restricts fluid motion to have high viscosity -- for example, syrup instead of water.

You can mitigate the results of overdamping by injecting fine-grain detail lost as a result of excessive viscosity that was introduced to stabilize the simulation. Such techniques include large-eddy simulation (LES), Reynolds-averaged Navier-Stokes (RANS), detached eddy, and vorticity confinement.

Semi-Lagrangian techniques (described above) avoid the instability by using a particle-based scheme to advect fluid (as Figure 9c depicts). The other terms of the fluid dynamics equations are computed using an Eulerian view. Backtracking dodges the instability even when fluid parcels move farther than a grid cell per time step.

Figure 9: CFL condition. (a) CFL violated, (b) CFL satisfied with smaller timesteps, and (c) instability avoided using backtracking.

Implicit methods derive from writing the equations of motion so that the future solution depends on both future and past solutions. For example, the backward Euler method is defined as

This might seem absurd: You would apparently need to know the future to solve the problem. But in practice, it is possible to find a solution implicitly by using a numerical linear algebraic solver, such as Jacobi, Gauss-Seidel, successive over-relaxation (SOR), or conjugate gradient (CG). When using a finite difference discretization and its corresponding linear system of equations (described above), using an implicit scheme would only require changing the values in the linear algebraic system's matrix; the solver code would remain identical.

Implicit methods are often stable when explicit methods are not, even if the simulation apparently violates the CFL condition. But this stability comes with a cost: Effectively, the simulation becomes damped, behaving somewhat as though it cranked up viscosity. This phenomenon is called numerical viscosity. The final results might end up looking like those from an explicit solver with very high viscosity -- and the implicit solver can take more computational effort.

Enforcing Solenoidality

Usually for visual effects, fluid simulations use the "incompressible" approximation, meaning mass cannot converge or diverge. In this case, there is no separate equation for pressure: It is coupled directly to velocity via incompressibility. The advection step can violate incompressibility, so it needs to be restored. One solution is to use a "scalar Poisson solver" to project the divergent field to obtain its solenoidal component. This is what Stam uses in "stable fluids." In contrast, Mick West constructs the advection step to conform to the incompressibility constraint and so avoids this separate step.

An analogous problem arises in vortex-based simulations: The vorticity field can accumulate divergence, even though mathematically vorticity (or any curl) cannot have divergence. This divergence does not influence the velocity field, but it can alter vortex stretching. The simulation must formulate vortex stretching such that divergent vorticity does not cause undue problems. This requires some straightforward algebraic manipulation, but for the sake of brevity, this article omits a detailed description.

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