Supercomputers Critical to Real-World Energy Initiatives, Says Secretary of Energy

By Beecher Tuttle May 09, 2012

The most common solutions to helping solve America's oil crisis include the creation of alternative fuel sources and more efficient ways to process and distribute power. U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu believes that a fairly untapped resource exists to take full advantage of these initiatives: supercomputers.

In a recent interview with Forbes, Chu explains how the unequaled power of today's supercomputers can help bridge the gap between theory and experiment by providing a third pillar of understanding – simulation.

Using these machines, scientists can simulate live situations to unearth real-world results, rather than relying on static algorithms and theoretical equations that need to be tested over a period of years.

Chu believes supercomputers hold the answers to questions about energy, climate and weather that follow unknown governing rules.

"A scientist can now simulate the movements, actions and effects of constituent particles – the atoms, molecules and pieces that define a system – with incredible depth," Chu told Forbes. "You throw it all into the hopper and let the supercomputer crunch."

Chu referenced a few real-world examples of the fruit supercomputers can bear, including streamlined aircrafts, more efficient jet engines and a fairly simple-sounding plastic contraption that can be affixed to the underside of a truck, resulting in a fuel savings of between six and seven percent.

He also recalled the example of a diesel engine maker that used a supercomputer to model complex chemical reactions and turbulent flow inside the combustion chamber of an engine to build a prototype that followed their design to a T.

"They could go from simulation to production in just a single step," Chu told Forbes.

Supercomputers can even aid nuclear power – an energy source that Chu continues to advocate – by simulating complex flows to avoid common problems associated with reactors, Chu added. "Being able to simulate changes in a new reactor design is a very big deal, because it could mean not just saving months or years, but possibly even a decade of design time."

The U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory is currently working on a new supercomputer, dubbed Titan, which should be completed by the end of 2012, putting the U.S. back on pace with Asian countries like China and Japan, who currently own the top 5 supercomputers in the world.

Edited by Braden Becker

TechZone360 Contributor

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