One of the industries hardest hit by restrictions of the COCID-19 pandemics is the live entertainment business. Concerns over the spread of the virus by the airflow created by vocalists and wind instrument players has kept entities like the Utah Symphony|Utah Opera shuttered.

But a pair of University of Utah chemical engineering researchers at the University of Utah — chemical engineering professor James Sutherland and assistant professor Tony Saad — and a team of students at the UofU were hired by leadership at Utah Symphony|Utah Opera to conduct a series of airflow studies inside Abravanel Hall, the orchestra’s concert venue, and help identify and inform decisions on returning to live performances. The team spent July and August investigating the potential risk by first measuring the flow rates through the air vents of the building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system. They also obtained the air flow measurements of various wind instruments, data that was already available through researchers at the University of Minnesota.

Using high-powered computers at the U’s Center for High Performance Computing (CHPC), the two professors developed simulations of how the air flows through, and ultimately, off the stage via the HVAC system. They also developed a computer model of how emissions from each of the wind instruments, such as the trumpets, flutes, oboes and clarinets, interacted with the air flow from the HVAC system. The goal, Sutherland sais, was to find the most effective way to get the emissions from the wind instruments to flow into the current of the air conditioning system, off the stage and ultimately out of the building.

Their final recommendations for the orchestra involve moving just about every musician to a different spot on the stage to maximize the flow of their emissions out of the auditorium. They also had suggestions for the HVAC system itself to improve the flow dynamics above the stage. With all of these recommendations, Saad, Sutherland and their team learned they can reduce the potential concentration of the virus on stage by more than a hundred times.

“We have been honored to help the Utah Symphony|Utah Opera understand the risk of returning to the stage, and thanks to the power of computational fluid dynamics and high-performance computing we were able to get the results in time,” Saad said. “I thank our team who have diligently worked on this and the U’s CHPC for granting us a generous computing allocation on their supercomputers.”

 David Green, senior vice president and chief operating officer for Utah Symphony|Utah Opera, saai the orchestra will be utilizing variations of these recommendations and those from epidemiologists, depending on each performance.

“The engineers helped us to achieve the data we wanted, and we paired that with the medical science,” he said. “We now know what’s going on onstage with the air flow, and we know how to react in any given configuration. It’s been a godsend for us, and it helps not only our staff and musicians but the audience.”

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