Supercomputers Think About Clean Energy

Twenty-five million hours of computer time? That’s a lot of “Call of Duty: Black Ops” gaming. Then again, a better use might be what Paul Fischer, a senior computational scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, has in mind — conducting simulations and analysis of advanced nuclear reactor designs.

Fischer is one of the scientists benefiting from the largest ever awarding of DOE supercomputing time, announced this week by Secretary Steven Chu. Fifty-seven research projects won a total of 1.7 billion processor hours on what the DOE calls two world-leading supercomputers: the IBM Blue Gene/P (aka, “Intrepid”) at the Argonne lab in Illinois and the Cray XT5 (“Jaguar“) at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Cray XT5 "Jaguar" supercomputer, Oak Ridge National Laboratory

image via National Center for Computational Sciences

To put the power of these machines in perspective, the DOE notes  “Jaguar’s computational capacity is roughly equivalent to 109,000 laptops all working together to solve the same problem.” Intrepid checks in at 26,000 laptops.

The department said the projects selected in a competitive, peer-reviewed process “include both academic and commercial research, including partnerships with companies such as GE and Boeing to use sophisticated computer modeling in the development of better wind turbines and jet engines.” Other areas of focus: the roles of ocean, atmosphere, land, and ice in climate change; advanced materials for lithium air batteries, solar cells and superconductors; fusion energy systems; fuel-efficient, near-zero-emissions systems; and carbon sequestration.

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Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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