Project Description

Coastal vegetation plays an important role in creating habitats, as a carbon sink and by dampening the waves as a natural form of coastal protection.    

This project aims to improve the understanding of wave dampening and related changes to boundary layers by vegetation through the use of novel simulation methods.  

 Resolving many relatively small details like 100-1000s of plant stems in the same simulation framework as several wavelengths across the computational domain is still too computationally demanding using conventional geometry-resolving computational fluid dynamics methods. ALFEA, a recently created tool based on Actuator Line Theory coupled with a Finite Element Structural Solver, shows promise in not only resolving the effect of large numbers of fixed stems, but also offers opportunities to investigate the effect of plant rigidity and deformation under fluid loading.  

 This project will firstly assess the accuracy and suitability of ALFEA for such simulations by performing validation studies against published data for static and flexible stems.  

Based on these initial proof-of-concept results, methods will be developed to further enhance the accuracy and applicability to different coastal and marine plant species and environmental conditions. For this second stage, computational methods will be complemented with experimental investigations in the field or using QUB’s tank testing facilities. 

Essential & desirable candidate skills:

Essential: Fluid dynamics

Desirable: OpenFOAM, C++, programming, Linux, HPC, experimental field and tank testing, Active Acoustic Sensors, remote sensing, spatial modelling and GIS 


Primary Supervisor:

Pal Schmitt

Institution: Queen’s University Belfast


School: School of Natural and Built Environment


David R. Green

Secondary Supervisor:

Profile: David R. Green
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Geosciences

Louise Kregting

Additional Supervisor:

Profile: Louise Kregting
Institution: Queen's University, Belfast
Department/School: School of Natural and Built Environment

Additional Supervisor:

Adam Mellor

Institution: Agri-Food & Biosciences Institute

School / Discipline: Fisheries and Aquatic Ecosystems Branch 

Institutional email address: 

Additional Supervisor:

Christian Wilson

Institution: Agri-Food & Biosciences Institute

School / Discipline: Fisheries and Aquatic Ecosystems Branch 

Institutional email address:


Schmitt, P., & Robinson, D. (2022). A Coupled Actuator Line and Finite Element Analysis Tool. OpenFOAM® Journal, 2, 81–93. 

Abdolahpour, M., Ghisalberti, M., McMahon, K. and Lavery, P.S. (2018), The impact of flexibility on flow, turbulence, and vertical mixing in coastal canopies. Limnol Oceanogr, 63: 2777-2792. 

Millar, R.,  Houghton, J.D.R., Kregting, L. (2021), The stress and strain of life – how differences in the mechanical properties and cellular composition enable the kelp Laminaria digitata to thrive in different hydrodynamic environments, Marine Environmental Research, Volume 169, 105330, 

Research Methods

The successful candidate will be placed within the Marine Research Group at Queen’s University Belfast. The Marine Research Group is a cross-disciplinary team of engineers, biologists and computer scientists, working on topics ranging from tank and fieldtesting of marine renewable energy devices, environmental impact monitoring and offshore sensing. Students will be offered a place to work at the main campus in Belfast or at the Marine Laboratory in Portaferry and will be offered additional support by AFBI NI. 

Expected Training Provision

The successful candidate will be supported by training in the use of high- performance computing facilities (QUB’s Tier 2 Kelvin2 facility) and computational fluid dynamics (OpenFOAM) and experimental tank or fieldtesting methods (Turbulence Probes, Active Acoustic Sensors).  



This project will deliver a stepchange in our ability to simulate and assess the crucial fluid dynamic processes in coastal and marine plant canopies using computer models. Plant canopies in the coastal zone can act as coastal defences, affecting coastal erosion, deposition and currents, mitigating wave action, as well as some of the effects caused by a warming climate and rising sea levels. Seaweeds, like kelp, are also of major commercial interest and the effects of this growing industry on coastal and marine waters are not well understood. Improved understanding of the underlying effects will thus help to de-risk new commercial developments like seaweed farming and support naturebased solutions for environmental protection. 

The topic easily lends itself to communication to a wider, non-academic audience e.g. stakeholder engagement and will therefore be integrated into numerous outreach activities (social media, schools, science days, citizen science etc.) at/ through QUB and UoA and AFBI.  

Proposed Supervision

The primary supervisor is Dr Pal Schmitt, a lecturer at the School of Natural and Build Environment and Manager of the wave tank facility in Portaferry. His background is in numerical methods for offshore engineering and he has also led field and tank testing campaigns using active and passive acoustic sensors.  

 Dr David R. Green is a Reader and Director of the Aberdeen Institute for Coastal Science and Management (AICSM) and Director of the MSc in GIS Degree Programme at the University of Aberdeen with a background in GIS, remote sensing, drones, hydrographic surveying, plant canopy modelling, and coastal management and interested In the environmental application of integrated geospatial technologies. 

The third supervisor at QUB/QML will be Dr Louise Kregting, Associate Director of Queen’s Marine Laboratory with a primary background in macroalgal eco-physiology and assessing how water motion influences production and erosion of kelp systems. 

Dr Adam Mellor and Christian Wilson lead work at the Fisheries and Aquatic Ecosystems section of the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute in NI involving detailed mapping of coastal vegetation (saltmarshes, seagrass and seaweed beds) using a combination of fieldwork and remote sensing technologies (LiDAR, satellite imagery and orthophotography). This work has been accompanied by monitoring of water levels and storm wave events to identify when these coastal habitats are at risk.

Proposed Timetable

Year 1: A thorough literature review will be carried out directed by the supervisors to establish both the specific research directions and ensure the student has a thorough understanding of the research gaps. At the same time, the student will be trained – as required – to become proficient in the use of high-performance computing, OpenFOAM, and the ALFEA tool. The student should then be able to independently run some first validation studies. 

Year 2: Evaluation of the results from validation undertaken in year 1 and analysis of knowledge gaps. Definition and design of experimental campaign (if required) and numerical experiments investigating key parameters, like for example,  rigidity, parametrisation of plant parameters in the model. 

Year 3: Finalising experimentation and simulations with postprocessing and data analysis and write up.    

Year 4: Write up.  The student will be strongly encouraged to prepare results as and when they become available to write up for publication already from year 2.   

In addition, QUADRAT students will also have specific training events, he/she will also be able to attend courses through QUB, UoA and AFBI programs on both generic (e.g. computing, oral and poster presentations, time management, teamwork), or subject specific (e.g. statistics) skills that are essential for the transition to employment regardless of sector. 


  • earth-systems
  • environmental-management


CASE Partnership confirmed.

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