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A discrete element method (DEM), also called a distinct element method is any of family of numerical methods for computing the motion of a large number of particles of micrometrescale size and above. Though DEM is very closely related to molecular dynamics, the method is generally distinguished by its inclusion of rotational degreesoffreedom as well as stateful contact and often complicated geometries (including polyhedra). With advances in computing power and numerical algorithms for nearest neighbor sorting, it has become possible to numerically simulate millions of particles on a single processor. Today DEM is becoming widely accepted as an effective method of addressing engineering problems in granular and discontinuous materials, especially in granular flows, powder mechanics, and rock mechanics.
The various branches of the DEM family are the distinct element method proposed by Cundall in 1971, the generalized discrete element method proposed by Hocking, Williams and Mustoe in 1985, the discontinuous deformation analysis (DDA) proposed by Shi in 1988 and the finitediscrete element method concurrently developed by several groups (e.g., Munjiza and Owen). The general method was originally developed by Cundall in 1971 to problems in rock mechanics. The theoretical basis of the method was established by Sir Isaac Newton in 1697. Williams, Hocking, and Mustoe in 1985 showed that DEM could be viewed as a generalized finite element method. Its application to geomechanics problems is described in the book Numerical Modeling in Rock Mechanics, by Pande, G., Beer, G. and Williams, J.R.. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd International Conferences on Discrete Element Methods have been a common point for researchers to publish advances in the method and its applications. Journal articles reviewing the state of the art have been published by Williams, Bicanic, and Bobet et al. (see below). A comprehensive treatment of the combined Finite ElementDiscrete Element Method is contained in the book The Combined FiniteDiscrete Element Method by Munjiza.
Discrete element methods are relatively computationally intensive, which limits either the length of a simulation or the number of particles. Several DEM codes, as do molecular dynamics codes, take advantage of parallel processing capabilities (shared or distributed systems) to scale up the number of particles or length of the simulation. An alternative to treating all particles separately is to average the physics across many particles and thereby treat the material as a continuum. In the case of solidlike granular behavior as in soil mechanics, the continuum approach usually treats the material as elastic or elastoplastic and models it with the finite element method or a mesh free method. In the case of liquidlike or gaslike granular flow, the continuum approach may treat the material as a fluid and use computational fluid dynamics. Drawbacks to homogenization of the granular scale physics, however, are welldocumented and should be considered carefully before attempting to use a continuum approach.
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