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Prof.dr. Anthony Thornton

Anthony Thornton promotes and develops open science platforms



Anthony Thornton is (adjunct) professor of Granular Materials within the Department of Thermal and Fluid Engineering at the University of Twente. “I am passionate about open-science and involved in several open-source coding projects. This includes the successful particle simulation code, MercuryDPM, which I co-founded at the UT back in 2009. In addition to this I am currently involved in setting up the UT open-science platform, which aims to promote all aspects of open-science, from FAIR data to citizen science.” 

Thornton believes the academic paper will become less important in the future as other research outputs (data, code etc…) will increasingly be directly utilised by fellow scientists / academics and members of the public, alike. “Sharing all scientific output allows us to contribute and work globally together in a much more sustainable manner. It removes the need to reproduce the work already done by the previous researchers in order to push forward the frontiers. This will facilitate easier combinations of expertise and ideas from different disciplines.”

Sharing all scientific output allows us to contribute and work globally together in a much more sustainable manner.Prof. Anthony Thornton

In addition to this, he co-founded the UT spin-off company, MercuryLab (https://mercurylab.org/), which aims to make powerful open-source tools easily accessible and usable by industry This is achieved using a combination of training, consultancy and their cloud-computing platform. MercuryLab is the interface between the state-of-the-art scientific codes and the complex needs of industry. MercuryLab is also committed to open-science and releases all features it develops back to the community via the open-source codes it ultises. In addition to this MercuryLab sponsors open-source workshop (hackfests) and conferences; contributes to scientific projects; and, directly funds PDEng students.

Thornton’s primary research is on granular materials, i.e. materials consisting of large numbers of discrete solid objects. “Granular materials can be found everywhere, for example in sand on the beach; your morning breakfast cereal, pills and tablets, rock slides and even the rings of Saturn. The handling of granular materials is a huge industrial problem with certain estimates stating that 10% of the world's energy consumption is the processing of grains. Grains are also a very exotic state of matter and can act like solids, liquids and gases depending on how excited the system is. Even in a simple egg-timer (sand clock) you will see grains acting as solids (in the bottom), liquids (as avalanches towards the neck) and gases (as it free-falls from the neck to the heap in the bottom).”

Research and teaching

The teaching, research and even company activities of the adjunct professor are all interconnected. “A classic example is segregation in rotating drums. As anybody who has ever shaken a box of cereal knows, grains like to segregate and will do if they differ in size, density, material properties and even shape. Segregation effects leads to pattern formation in laboratory experiments and quality control and mixing problems in many industrial apparatus. This topic is the central theme of my Vidi project; however, I also offer BSc projects where students can design their own mixer. I do tell them, if they create a perfect mixer it could be worth billions. In this project the students get to design, simulate, build a prototype and test their very own mixer and see if they can solve this important problem. This project is very popular and I have gained many Master (and even PhD students) via this hand-on drum design problem.”

So far, Thornton has supervised 10 plus projects. He laughs: “None of my students are billionaires, yet; but the project does teach them a lot about granular materials, in general. Meaning the students who do this project are very popular with companies for internships (e.g. currently one of my students is at BlueScope Steel in Australia), as companies often find it hard to obtain staff with practical knowledge of granular handling. In addition to this one of MercuryLab’s core income streams is using MercuryDPM to design and improve industrial mixers. Showing how this deceptively complex problem is used in teaching, research and in a commercial content.”

Also since starting at the UT, the adjunct professor has been involved in designing new courses which teach the skills he needs his Master students to have. This has included a range of topics from ‘how to develop open-source, C++ skills and even Arduino programming’. “This means I get Master students with the skills I need for my research, leading to good PhD candidates. In fact, over half my PhD students have previously done either a Master or Bachelor project with me.”

Finishing with the MercuryLab perspective, Master students often do internships or part-time jobs with the company as they have the required skills. Currently, half the full-time employees of the company have previously done a PhD within the multiscale Mechanics group showing how teaching, research and the company all interrelate in a mutually beneficial way.

About Anthony Thornton

Anthony Thornton is an applied mathematician whose research focuses on combined theory and experiments and simulations to model granular systems. He is best known for his work on modelling particle-size segregation in dense granular flows and regularly receives invited talks on the topic; including a keynote at the main conference of the field e.g. the Gordon Research conference on ‘Granular Matter’ , Powders and Grains. He is also a keynote at both the USA and Europe first every Blending and Segregation Forum which aims to bring industrial leaders and academic experts together.

He co-founded the open-source simulation code, MercuryDPM and has been involved in many successful grant applications, including a Vidi project on ‘Advanced Modelling of Segregation and its Application to Industrial Processes’. His research has applications in many areas, including pharmaceutical, food science, mining, particle technology and geophysics.

In 2015 he co-founded the UT spin-off company MercuryLab, whose aim is to make MercuryDPM accessible for industry utilisation. Via this he has been involved in various industrial projects looking at many aspects of dense granular flows.

In 2017 he gained the title Professor of ‘Granular Materials’, a new chair Department of Fluid and Thermal Engineering, at UTwente. He works at the interface of disciplines, as highlighted by the diverse journals he publishes in (e.g. Journal of Fluid Mechanics, Computational Particle Methods, Granular Matter and Physics Review Letters).

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