Fractional differential equations are becoming increasingly used as a modelling tool for processes associated with anomalous diffusion or spatial heterogeneity. However, the presence of a fractional differential operator causes memory (time fractional) or nonlocality (space fractional) issues that impose a number of computational constraints. In this paper we develop efficient, scalable techniques for solving fractional-in-space reaction diffusion equations using the finite element method on both structured and unstructured grids via robust techniques for computing the fractional power of a matrix times a vector. Our approach is show-cased by solving the fractional Fisher and fractional Allen-Cahn reaction-diffusion equations in two and three spatial dimensions, and analyzing the speed of the traveling wave and size of the interface in terms of the fractional power of the underlying Laplacian operator. © 2012 Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.