Leap to the extreme scale
could break science boundaries
(page 4 of 4)
The fastest computer in the United States as of November 2010 is a Cray XT system at ORNL’s National Center for Computational Science, named Jaguar. With more than 224,000 processors, it has a theoretical peak speed of 2.3 petaflops and has sustained more than a petaflops on some applications, Bland says.
Jaguar enables scientists like Jacqueline Chen of Sandia National Laboratories to study fundamental processes in incredible detail. “Chen has an extensive library of simulation data for combustion modeling,” Bland says. “It can be used to make natural gas-burning generators or diesel engines run more efficiently.”
In another case, Jaguar is helping scientists study superconducting materials to deliver electricity more efficiently. Today’s transmission lines waste about a quarter of electricity generated in the United States to resistance-created heat. Superconductors lose almost no energy to heat, but so far only materials chilled to extremely low temperatures – about -200 °C – achieve this property.
Thomas Schulthess of the Swiss National Supercomputer Center and Institute for Theoretical Physics in Zurich and his colleagues are using Jaguar to seek new materials that become superconducting at room temperature.
But very fast computers already make daily differences in everyone’s life. For example, they help meteorologists forecast the weather.
“Think back to when you were a kid,” Bland says, “and the weather reports for ‘today’ were pretty good, but maybe not perfect, and ‘tomorrow’ was just a tossup. In a seven-day forecast today, the sixth and seventh days may be a little iffy, but you can usually really count on forecasts over the next three or four days.”
A yet more accurate weather forecast might not matter much if it only means knowing which weekend day will be best for boating or golf. But an accurate forecast can mean the difference between life and death if it tells you when and how hard a hurricane will hit your seaside town.