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The De-Ice Man Cometh

By Pierre Home-Douglas

A lot of people complain about the weather, goes the old saying, but no one does anything about it. Well, not really no one. There's Wagdi (Fred) Habashi. The lively 57-year-old professor of mechanical engineering at Montreal's McGill University and president of Newmerical Technologies International has spent the last 10 years trying to do something about the weather. In his quest to minimize a problem that has plagued aircraft designers for decades, he has helped create a software system that is altering the way engineers work on airplane design and certification—one that may ultimately save lives.

The problem is in-flight icing. Chunks of ice can be swallowed by an engine and freezing clouds can subtly change the aerodynamic shape of a wing or tail, sometimes with catastrophic results. And it's not just a cold-climate problem. In 2001, a Brazilian-made Embraer turboprop flying from the Bahamas to West Palm Beach, Florida, rolled around in the sky and went into a near-vertical dive because of wing icing. Only warmer weather at lower altitudes melted the ice and saved the plane.

Ice is an insidious prey. It can freeze on the leading edge of a wing, melt, and then reappear in another area. It also confounds the icing sensors installed on various ice-prone parts of the plane. Most jet aircraft channel heat from the engines to areas where ice forms, but figuring out where to install the sensors or the exact amount of heat to apply to melt the ice is far from an exact science. Despite all the advances in other areas of aircraft design, pilots still rely largely on visual clues to detect icing, such as a slower flying speed or a buildup of ice on the windshield wiper bolt. But these warnings can be misleading. Ice can form on windshield wipers, for example, but not on the wings—and vice versa.

Habashi first learned some of these details in casual conversations with a friend, Gary Wagner, who is both a senior pilot at Air Canada and has a master's degree in aerospace engineering from Stanford University. What could be done about the problem? The two decided to invite the chief of NASA's icing tunnel and about 20 experienced pilots and company representatives to an initial brainstorming session in Montreal and had their suspicions confirmed: Little had been done in the field. True, there were already software programs that helped engineers design aircraft, but none that took icing fully into consideration. Two months later, Habashi hosted a one-day course in which he invited the top people in the world in icing to come to Montreal. A wish list gradually emerged for an icing program—one that could help design a plane that would minimize the effects of icing and accurately determine where icing sensors should be installed. And one that would allow engineers to know how icing would affect a particular aircraft early in the design process, before aircraft builders engaged in the expensive task of building a prototype and testing it in an icing chamber.

Listening intently to these experts, Habashi had an epiphany of sorts. He realized that the answer to all these questions could very well be found in one field: computational fluid dynamics (CFD). CFD uses mathematics and computer science to simulate flow over anything—or in anything—from the flow of air over a wing to the swirl of ice cream in a refrigerated mixing tank. With his background as McGill's director of the computational fluid dynamic lab, Habashi was well placed to know what CFD was and what it could do. He applied for a research grant from Canada's National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). Then he assembled a team of post docs, engineering students, professional engineers, and applied mathematicians, and they began working on an icing program. They met once a month with representatives from leading aircraft makers like Bombardier and with pilots to find whether they were keeping on track and continuing to tackle the right problems. Twenty meetings—and 20 months—later, in 1999, they finished the first version of FENSAP-Ice, short for Finite Element Navier-Stokes Application Package for Ice. (Navier-Stokes are differential equations developed more than a century ago that predict the motion of a fluid.)

According to Habashi, the software program gives aerodynamic engineers the same tools for icing that they already use for aerodynamic design, enabling them to consider icing while designing, rather than waiting until the plane is designed and then going back and correcting problems with icing. “Now plane designers can engage in concurrent engineering rather than successive engineering,” he says. “Maybe there are some small sacrifices in aerodynamics that can be made early on in the design process that can yield big gains in ice protection. That is counter to what we heard six or seven years ago. I remember a director of aerodynamics getting up at a company meeting and almost accusing me of being naive. ‘You never, never, sacrifice aerodynamics for icing,' he said. But now we do.”

In “the old days,” according to Habashi, people sat around, came up with an idea of what the next airplane design would be and built a model using empirical rules. They corrected everything they could and finally built a prototype and tested it in a wind tunnel. Then came some refining and another prototype. And so on, followed by testing for icing in an icing chamber, where a scientist in a parka would actually wander around the tunnel taking samples of ice that had formed. “Now you cut metal with CFD,” Habashi states. “You come up with a concept on paper and refine it on the computer until you determine the most appropriate shape, depending on wing load, size of engine, fuel consumption, the noise level, and many other factors—including icing, of course. You still have to test it, but it's a far cry from taking shots in the dark, building five or six prototypes and spending $2,000 to $3,000 an hour to test them and find out which of the five is better—but not necessarily the best.”

Competitive Edge

Only a decade ago, the cycle of taking a plane from conception to production took five years. Now it is less than three years. As Habashi points out, “If you are a company that takes three years and six months today, it means that you are six months too late. Someone has already made an order with one of your competitors.” Part of that time is spent testing the aircraft under various conditions to prove it can deal with icing. Reduce the testing time, and you reduce the time it takes to bring the aircraft to market.

To refine the program—“We improve it almost daily,” he says—Habashi created Newmerical Technologies International. McGill University's support was instrumental from the start. The school established an Industrial Research Chair of Multidisciplinary CFD for Habashi, sponsored by NSERC and Bombardier. The chair allowed Habashi to spend more time on research, while still supervising a dozen or so graduate students. “McGill has helped me achieve what I wanted to achieve, both on the academic and the industrial side,” Habashi says. “It's a class act.” The university has also served as a recruitment ground of sorts. Half of his employees today are former graduate students. “There are very few companies in Canada where you can do applied research as a Ph.D.,” Habashi points out. “You spend a lot of your time with the nitty-gritty of production. The advantage of a company like mine is that you can continue doing a very high level of research in an industrial atmosphere without the pressure of having to get a product out.”

After the first program became available in 1999, Habashi and his senior engineers had to make the rounds to all the major players in aircraft design. Now that FENSAP-Ice has become the industry standard, selling the program is becoming easier. When Lockheed Martin started work on the next generation of fighter jet for the U.S. military, the F-35, the company called Habashi to purchase the program. Other clients include Airbus, Bombardier, Bell Helicopter, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and European Air Defense Systems. Currently, Newmerical Technologies has 20 employees and is listed on the Toronto Venture Exchange.

Still, challenges exist. For starters, there is no agreed-upon worldwide code on icing. The Federal Aviation Administration has one, Transport Canada has another, and the Joint Aviation Administration (JAA) in Europe has another. “There is no code, even ours, which is taken at face value and accepted,” Habashi explains. “The users have to justify, each time, why the results predicted by computers should be accepted.” Habashi believes that changes in certification will become more standardized for icing and that, slowly but inexorably, FENSAP-Ice will shave more time off the conception-to-production cycle for aircraft.

In the meantime, it isn't only aircraft companies that are purchasing FENSAP-Ice. Automotive designers use the program to help design windshields, wipers, and side windows on cars and trucks to stay as ice-free as possible. Architects rely on it to figure out how their designs will impact snowdrifts that will form next to the entrances and exits of buildings. Engineers at Dreyer's Ice Cream heard about the program recently and purchased it to figure out the most efficient way to freeze ice cream depending on different flavors. “It's all part of fluid dynamics,” Habashi states.

The mastermind behind FENSAP-Ice was born in 1946 in Port Said, Egypt, where his father was a self-taught man in the legal profession. As a high school student, Habashi vacillated between going into medicine or engineering. He chose engineering and hasn't regretted it for a minute. “I love what I do. It's a mix of engineering, physics, mathematics, and computer science.” He enrolled in mechanical engineering at McGill University and graduated first in his class. He then earned a Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering at Cornell before eventually returning to Montreal, where he spends his spare time playing tennis, reading, and brushing up on his Italian. He already speaks English, French, and Arabic fluently.

Reflecting on his career of more than three decades as an engineer, Habashi says, “I have devoted myself to good science, to innovative science, and always, always keeping in mind that it must have an industrial application. I never start anything because it is elegant or cute. It has to be useful.” A professor who is also a businessman? Habashi doesn't see any contradiction at all. “There is a class of professors all over North America today who are both academics and entrepreneurs. Who could run a company like mine? Take a businessman and he wouldn't understand the product or where he wants to go. Look at Apple. The soul of the company was Steve Jobs. Once they put John Scully in to replace him it didn't work out.”

Pierre Home-Douglas is a freelance writer based in Montreal.
He can be reached at

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