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Different from the finite difference method (FDM) described earlier, the FEM

introduces approximated solutions of the variables at every nodal points, not

their derivatives as has been done in the FDM. The region of interest is

subdivided into small regions that are called “finite elements”. It will then be

assumed that some predetermined function ( such as |(x,y,z,t)) in terms of

dependent variables (such as the spatial and time coordinates, x,y,x,z & t) can be

used to replace the dependent variable (T(x,y,z,t)at the node (with unknown

coefficients (a

i

) to be determined).

This function has to satisfy both the governing equation (heat diffusion equation

for heat transfer problem, for example) at every nodal points and the boundary

condition at every exterior nodal points. By substitute this function into every

points we can obtain a system of algebraic equations in terms of the unknown

coefficients (a

i

). This system of equations can then be solved using standard

numerical schemes described before.

( , , , ) ( , , , ), where N is the total number of

nodal points in the domain.

N

i i

i

T x y z t a x y x t | =

¿

Finite Element Example

Determine the temperature distribution of the flat plate as shown below using

finite element analysis. Assume one-dimensional heat transfer, steady state, no

heat generation and constant thermal conductivity. The two surfaces of the plate

are maintained at constant temperatures of 100°C and 0°C, respectively.

T=100°C

T=0°C

1

2 3

L=3

First, divide the plate into three elements (1,2

& 3). The temperatures of these three

elements are represented by their nodal

temperatures T

1

,T

2

& T

3

, respectively.

Next, assume the temperature is a function of

its coordinate: T(x)=Ax

2

+Bx+C. A,B & C are

three constants.

Finally, determine the constants using the

governing equation and all corresponding

boundary conditions.

x

1

=1/2

x

2

=3/2

x

3

=5/2

Example (cont.)

To simplify the solution, we can apply the governing equation first:

2 2

2 2

2 2

0, ( ) 2 0

T

T Ax Bx C A

x x

c c

V = = + + = =

c c

Therefore, A=0 for all nodal temperature functions. This is no surprise for us

since we know the steady state, no generation, 1-D heat transfer should have a

linear temperature distribution. Therefore: T(x)=Bx+C and the three nodal

equations are:

T

1

=Bx

1

+C=(B/2)+C, T

2

=Bx

2

+C=(3B/2)+C, T

3

= Bx

3

+C=(5B/3)+C

Therefore, there are only two constants to be solved and they can be determined

using the two boundary conditions. At the left-side surface, the temperature is a

constant 100°C and there is a constant heat transfer into the element 1 and the

same amount of the heat is transferred to the element 2 since there can be no heat

accumulation inside the element to satisfy the steady state condition.

q

(left surface to element 1)

= q

(element 1 to element 2)

Example (cont.)

1 1 2 1 1

1 2 1

1 2

100 100

,

0 1/ 2 1

3

3 200, 3 200

2 2

0( ) 2( ) 200: The first equation

T T T T T T

k k

x x x

B B

T T C C

B C

÷ ÷ ÷ ÷

= =

÷ ÷

| | | |

÷ = + ÷ + =

| |

\ . \ .

+ =

zero

The second equation can be determined by using the boundary condition

on the other side of the plate:

2 3 3 2 3 3

3 2 3

3 2

0

,

3 1 1/ 2

5 3

3 0, 3 0

2 2

6 2 0: The second equation

T T T T T T

k k

x x x

B B

T T C C

B C

÷ ÷ ÷

= =

÷ ÷

| | | |

÷ = + ÷ + =

| |

\ . \ .

+ =

Example (cont.)

The finite element matrix for the constants B & C is:

0 2 200

6 2 0

100

Solve using any numerical scheme: B=- , 100

3

100

( ) 100

3

B

C

C

T x x

( ( (

=

( ( (

¸ ¸ ¸ ¸ ¸ ¸

=

= ÷

This equation satisfies both boundary conditions: T(x=0)=100°C and

T(x=3)=0 °C.

For most finite element problems, we have to use thousands or even

millions of elements in order to resolve as much detailed information as

possible. Therefore, a fast numerical solver for the matrix (system of

equations) is necessary to obtain satisfactory results. The use of numerical

scheme has been discussed previously when we introduce the finite

difference method.

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