The evolution of a tornado and the inner workings of a living cell will be at the center of some of the challenging research UI professors will tackle using the world’s most powerful supercomputer next year.
The Blue Waters supercomputer, to be housed in the new National Petascale Computing Facility at Oak Street and St. Mary’s Road, will come online in 2011.
The National Center for Supercomputing Applications recently hosted an open house for Blue Waters’ future home. So far, the 88,000-square-foot facility is housing infrastructure components that will support Blue Waters. The computer itself will arrive in 2011, but some equipment is already in place, including a room of power-distribution panels and other technology now being used to develop software that eventually will run high-performance supercomputing calculations on Blue Waters. The machine will have a peak performance of 10 petaflops, or 10 quadrillion calculations every second.
A select group of UI researchers are eager to access the unsurpassed computing power to take on some of the most difficult problems in their fields.
Among them is Brian Jewett, a research scientist in the department of atmospheric sciences. He and his team are working to create software that will be used to study the causes and anatomy of tornadoes.
They’ll use Blue Waters to simulate tornadoes in a new or more detailed way, he said.
“We have not yet really captured the full detail of a tornado and the parent thunderstorm, he said. “We don’t fully understand why a tornado occurs when and where it does.”
Some studies have made models of the inner core of a tornado, while others have studied the entire structure of thunderstorms that can result in funnel clouds, he said.
“We want to … model with realism the structure of an entire storm system and the evolution of a tornado within the storm,” he said.
Using the computer, they’ll be able to manipulate variables such as wind temperature and atmospheric pressure to simulate a storm. The level of detail and accuracy they’re after is only possible with the power of Blue Waters.
The research could affect how accurately a storm can be predicted.
UI physics professor Klaus Schulten is also eager to see what Blue Waters’ supercomputing power can do for his research in biology.
The living cell is made of many molecules. The molecules behave like individuals in a highly structured society, assembling into groups and collaborating. In the past, molecular biologists have studied mainly individual molecules, such as proteins. With Blue Waters Schulten and his colleagues want to study protein societies as they arise in living cell. Naturally, one needs a big computer for that, Schulten said.
Just as engineers who design aircraft use computers to simulate the airplanes before they’re manufactured, he and his fellow researchers have used supercomputers in the past to simulate individual molecules.
Now, Schulten and his team will extend their software for Blue Waters to simulate the workings of a whole “society” of molecules inside a cell.
“We need a supercomputer to see that (entire) society for the first time,” he said.
Schulten says the research will answer some very big questions.
“What is life?” Schulten said. “Life comes about through the interactions of billions of molecules in the biological cells. Studying only one molecule at a time will not answer the question.
“Once we know in detail how molecules organize themselves in living cells, we also can assist bioengineers in designing life forms to produce chemicals, for example for pharmacology, or to help solve the world’s energy problem,” Schulten said
Jewett and Schulten say having the computer at the UI only enhances the already stellar achievements and reputation of the UI as a research institution.
“It means a world-class resource is going to be located right here for our use,” Jewett said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity.”
Although Jewett and Schulten are UI researchers, they didn’t have a home-field advantage to gain access to Blue Waters.
Both teams submitted lengthy proposals to get a time slot for using Blue Waters. Scientists from across the nation and around world compete for a chance to use the supercomputer for their research.
The supercomputer will be used to support open scientific and engineering research – in other words, non-classified material that eventually will be published, said Trish Barker, senior public information specialist at NCSA.
“It’s reserved for only the most challenging problems you can’t do on other supercomputers,” she said.
Blue Waters will be supported by a set of National Science Foundation grants that exceed $300 million until 2016. By then, newer hardware and software could be developed and another machine could replace Blue Waters as the world’s largest supercomputer.
Blue Waters, a joint effort of the UI, NCSA, IBM and the Great Lakes Consortium for Petascale Computation, is based on IBM’s POWER7 hardware.
Today’s leading scientists won’t be the only ones to benefit from use of the supercomputer. Time and resources will be set aside at the facility for K-12 educational programs. Graduate students also will be able to take advantage of training programs at the facility.
The National Petascale Computing Facility, a $72.5 million facility paid for by the state of Illinois, will achieve LEED Gold certification for energy efficiency. Blue Waters is water-cooled, which reduces energy requirements by 40 percent, according to IBM. On-site cooling towers will provide water chilled naturally about nine months of the year.