Oil crisis stalled cars, but jumpstarted a supercomputing revolution
Posted July 31, 2007
It’s 1973. Major oil-producing countries have united to raise prices. Arab nations have cut off oil shipments to much of the West. American drivers are struggling through long gas lines and shortages.
It would forever change the way Americans think about energy – and alter the path of scientific research.
“We all got up one morning in 1973 and there were lines at the gas pumps,” recalls Alvin Trivelpiece, who served as assistant director for research in the Controlled Thermonuclear Research (CTR) Division of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).
His boss, AEC Chair Dixy Lee Ray, responded with a proposed $10 billion program named Project Independence.
Scientists submitted a torrent of proposals for research on alternative energy sources – including fusion, which could produce abundant, clean power by fusing hydrogen atoms in a hot ionized gas cloud called a plasma.
“It was an opportunity to make the case for greatly expanding the fusion program,” Trivelpiece says. “It wouldn’t have happened without the oil embargo.”
The budget for fusion research went from $20 million to $70 million in a couple of years and eventually to about $500 million in 1980. “High-performance computing was the beneficiary of these circumstances,” Trivelpiece adds. Trivelpiece wanted to provide more powerful computing resources for fusion scientists. His vision was for a centralized computer remote users could connect to via telecommunications links. This vision helped alter the paradigm for performing research.
Realizing the Vision
The odyssey began with the Controlled Thermonuclear Research Computer Center (CTRCC), which later became the National Magnetic Fusion Energy Computer Center (NMFECC), then the National Energy Research Supercomputer Center (NERSC), and finally the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, the state-of-the-art national facility that serves government, industry, and academic users today.
In 1973, Trivelpiece was on leave from his post as a University of Maryland physics professor when he came to the AEC. He soon formed a study group to assess the CTR Division’s computing needs.
The group identified several areas that required special attention in order to develop expertise in predicting and understanding plasma behavior in large-scale thermonuclear confinement systems and fusion reactors. One suggestion was the creation of a CTR computer center with “its own special-purpose dedicated computer,” Trivelpiece says.