Python FEM and Multiphysics Simulations with FEniCS and FEATool

Banner - Python FEM and Multiphysics Simulations with FEniCS and FEATool

FEniCS is a flexible and comprehensive finite element FEM and partial differential equation PDE modeling and simulation toolkit with Python and C++ interfaces along with many integrated solvers. As both FEATool and FEniCS discretize equations employing a weak finite element formulation it is quite straightforward to translate FEATool syntax and convert it to FEniCS python scripts. Similar to what has been done with the external CFD solvers, this post introduces the FEATool-FEniCS external solver integration allowing for easy conversion, exporting, solving, and importing FEATool Multiphysics models to FEniCS directly from the GUI, as well as the MATLAB command line interfaces.

In contrast to specialized solvers, FEniCS is aimed at supporting and solving general systems of PDEs, such as found in engineering and coupled multiphysics problems. As both FEATool and FEniCS discretize the equations in the same way the solutions they produce should be virtually identical. One of the many advantages of using FEniCS then, in addition to now supporting the Python scripting language as well as MATLAB, is that FEniCS solvers have support for both distributed (MPI) and shared memory (OpenMP) parallel HPC execution allowing for larger models to be solved significantly faster (FEniCS has been tested on problem sizes up to 108 degrees of freedom run on 512 CPUs in parallel, where MATLAB and Octave in contrast is limited to the serial sparse linear solvers, the Umfpack direct solver and selection of iterative ones).

GUI Usage

FEATool-FEniCS Python Finite Element FEM Simulation and MATLAB GUI

A button labeled FEniCS can be found in the Solve Mode toolbar of the FEATool GUI. Pressing this button opens a dialog box where the current model equations and parameters have been translated and converted to a FEniCS python script. The script can be inspected and edited, as well as changing the output file name and system shell command to run it (which is bash by default).

The FEniCS solver dialog box also features Solve, Auto, Export, and Import buttons. If the Auto toggle button is engaged the Solve button will automatically try to Export, Solve, and Import the computed solution. With the Auto toggle disengaged the Solve button only execute the FEniCS python script in a bash shell if present (not export or import). The Export option saves the current grid in Dolfin XML format and exports the FEniCS simulation script and Import will import an existing solution if it matches with the FEATool problem definition. Additional options include the base File Name and overriding the default bash Solve Command.

Command Line Usage

The installed fenics MATLAB function can also be used on the command line (CLI) to manually perform the export, solve, and import actions. In the following is an example to set up a simple heat transfer model on a unit circle with a unit heat source term, and T=0 fixed temperature on all the boundaries. In the FEATool MATLAB m-script language the model will look like the following

fea.sdim = {'x' 'y'};
fea.grid = quad2tri(circgrid());

fea = addphys(fea, @heattransfer);{6,end} = {1};   % Heat source term. = 1;          % Zero temperature boundary conditions.

fea = parsephys(fea);                % Parse physics mode and fea problem struct.
fea = parseprob(fea);

fea.sol.u = solvestat(fea);

postplot(fea, 'surfexpr', 'T')

By running the command fenics(fea, ‘mode’, ‘export’) a grid file featool_fenics_mesh.xml and FEniCS simulation script file will automatically be generated in the current directory

from fenics import *

# Mesh and subdomains.
mesh = Mesh("featool_fenics_mesh.xml")

# Finite element and function spaces.
E0 = FiniteElement("P", mesh.ufl_cell(), 1)
V = FunctionSpace(mesh, E0)
T = Function(V)
T_t = TestFunction(V)

# Model constants and expressions.
rho = Constant(1)
cp = Constant(1)
k = Constant(1)
u = Constant(0)
v = Constant(0)
q = Constant(1)

# Bilinear forms.
a = ( (rho*cp*u)*T*T_t.dx(0) + (k)*T.dx(0)*T_t.dx(0) + \
      (rho*cp*v)*T*T_t.dx(1) + (k)*T.dx(1)*T_t.dx(1) )*dx

# Linear forms.
f = q*T_t*dx

# Boundary conditions.
dbc0 = DirichletBC(V, Constant(0), 0)
dbc1 = DirichletBC(V, Constant(0), 1)
dbc2 = DirichletBC(V, Constant(0), 2)
dbc3 = DirichletBC(V, Constant(0), 3)
dbc = [dbc0, dbc1, dbc2, dbc3]

# Initial conditions.
assign(T, interpolate( Constant(0), V))

# Solve.
solve( a - f == 0, T, dbc )

# Output.
import numpy as np
T_h = T.compute_vertex_values(mesh)
np.savetxt("featool_fenics_sol.txt", np.column_stack((T_h)))

# Postprocessing.
plot(T, title = "T")

The generated FEniCS python FEM script is longer and somewhat more verbose since all the FEATool physics mode defaults must be explicitly expressed.

Calling fenics(fea, ‘mode’, ‘solve’) will attempt to solve the problem if python and FEniCS is installed and set up correctly. Alternatively, the script can be run by itself by a valid FEniCS installation.

The solution process will generate the file featool_fenics_sol.txt containing the nodal solution(s) which can be imported back into FEATool with fea = fenics(fea, ‘mode’, ‘import’) after which it can be postprocessed and visualized with the usual FEATool and MATLAB functions.


The FEniCS-FEATool integration and problem file export should work for general multiphysics problems using both the GUI and command line. However, a subset of FEATool functionality is currently not supported (the known ones are listed here)

  • Non-linear Dirichlet fixed value boundary conditions are not supported. The exported FEniCS C++ boundary condition expressions do not currently allow for dependent variables / solution unknowns.

  • As FEniCS does not feature a built-in time dependent solver. Solvers for instationary problems must currently be implemented manually.

  • Switch and logical expressions (for example x>1 & y<=0) must be manually rewritten to conform with the C++ expression syntax.

  • The ordering of expressions and constants is arbitrary in FEATool while in FEniCS constants and expressions must be defined sequentially in the order they are used, and may therefore need to be rearranged in the auto generated FEniCS problem file.

  • Point source terms are not supported by the FEniCS non-linear solution form (which is used by default since it also handles linear problems).

  • Although FEATool and FEniCS uses the same finite element FEM basis functions the internal ordering is different, thus the FEniCS solution will be exported in the grid points (P1 space). Thus even if higher-order FEM spaces are used solution accuracy will be lost during FEATool import. This issue might not be that important for visualization but when calculating quantities, boundary and subdomain integrals, and expression evaluations it would currently be more accurate to perform that in FEniCS and python.

  • FEniCS does not currently support quadrilateral or hexahedral grid cells and must be converted to triangles and tetrahedra, respectively. Grid conversion of these types of grids can be performed directly in the GUI or with the quad2tri and hex2tet commands. Typically this will not be an issue since FEATool and the automatic mesh generator gridgen by default creates simplex grids (line segments, triangles, and tetrahedra).

  • In addition to supporting FEniCS, the exported python simulation scripts should also be compatible with the Firedrake project solver which also uses the FEniCS Unified Form Language (UFL) for problem definitions.


FEATool-FEniCS functionality is integrated with the default FEATool Multiphysics distribution. However, FEATool does not include a Python interpreter or FEniCS itself which must be installed separately. The FEniCS homepage provides instructions how to install FEniCS on Linux systems and pre-configured Docker Linux images.

For systems running Windows 10 FEniCS can be installed with the Ubuntu Bash Windows Subsystem for Linux by simply opening a Windows Bash shell and running the FEniCS on Ubuntu commands (which automatically also installs Python if required)

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:fenics-packages/fenics
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install --no-install-recommends fenics
sudo apt-get dist-upgrade

To allow FEniCS and python plotting and visualization on Windows one must also install an X window server such as Xming or VcXsrv (note that plotting of the solution variables is commented and disabled in the FEATool-FEniCS scripts by default).

Category: solver

Tags: fenics


Twitter LinkedIn Facebook