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:: By Zak Stambor

:: Photography courtesy Argonne
:: National Laboratory

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Chicago Journal ::

Shift in focus

Argonne National Laboratory installs one of the world’s fastest supercomputers.

Argonne National Laboratory has recently seen “its role change,” says Robert Rosner, Argonne director and president of UChicago Argonne, LLC, which manages the lab, “so rather than design and build [nuclear] reactors,” many of its scientists now are involved in computational science, including research examining how to build a better reactor.


Technicians install Argonne’s new IBM Blue Gene/P supercomputer.

As part of that evolution, Argonne announced plans in December to construct a Theory and Computing Sciences Building that will bring together researchers from five different buildings, as well as some currently housed offsite, to conduct research in a range of fields, including nuclear, atomic, and particle physics; computational biology; astrophysics; and nuclear engineering. The facility will house more than 600 laboratory employees, an 18,000-square-foot centralized library, a conference center, including research groups that have begun to use IBM’s Blue Gene/P supercomputer, which the lab announced it had acquired a month earlier.

By installing one of IBM’s fastest supercomputers and linking it with an upgraded and expanded IBM Blue Gene/L machine, the Argonne, Illinois–based facility is bolstering its computer systems’capabilities fivefold. The combined machine will process 556 million million calculations per second.

The new facility and machines are key cogs in the Department of Energy’s evolving computational-research approach, which also includes distinct, complementary supercomputing operations at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, says Michael Strayer, associate director for Advanced Scientific Computing Research in the DOE’s Office of Science, which oversees the laboratories’programs. “We want to leverage off the strength of [Argonne’s] computer-science program,” he says, “to perform substantial and exciting science simulations.”

Scientists across the country will use the computers’computational capabilities to examine such large-scale issues as how stars end their lives as supernovas and what led to the initial structure of the universe. Those scientists come from national laboratories, Chicago and other universities, as well as companies like Boeing, Dreamworks LLC, and Pratt & Whitney, because the computers allow them to research areas that are difficult to start up in a university environment, are interdisciplinary, or require a strong applied component. To use the machines, they agree to publish their results in open scientific literature. For instance, Dreamworks has used the IBM Blue Gene/L supercomputer to conduct a simulation study using optimal retracing—a means of computing the behavior of light that is applicable to animation, as well as for transport equations that examine high-energy particles’behavior. Likewise Don Lamb, director of Chicago’s Center for Astrophysical Thermonuclear Flashes, plans to use the new machine to model white dwarf star’s incineration, which may help determine properties of dark energy, a hypothetical force thought to dominate the universe.

In December the lab finished installing the new supercomputer. The other will be upgraded and expanded by the opening of the new facility. Once installed and linked, the DOE’s machines will help boost the national laboratories’output from 250 million processor hours to nearly 750 million, says Strayer, noting that Argonne’s combined supercomputer will be either the world’s fastest, or second-fastest, supercomputer.

The installations follow an October 19 announcement that Argonne will end onsite experimental work involving significant quantities of nuclear material since the costs of upgrading Argonne’s programmatic equipment, fire prevention, and ventilation systems were cost prohibitive. While the lab will continue to conduct research using small amounts (less than one gram) of nuclear material, it will collaborate with Savannah River National Laboratory in Aiken, South Carolina, to carry out other types of nuclear experiments.

The DOE’s creation of the Idaho National Laboratory in February 2005—it combined Argonne National Laboratory–West and the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory—“was the deciding moment when it became clear,” Rosner says, “that our mission as a lab is to inform the more technological parts by trying to work out the science-based engineering that allows everything else to happen.”

To better serve the nation’s interests, Rosner says Argonne aims to use the supercomputers to position itself to shape nuclear energy “20 to 30 years from now.” Rosner says that the lab’s scientists already know the weaknesses of the current generation of nuclear reactors, so they need to begin research and development to license a new design, which could take a decade. While the shift will reshuffle some staff, for the most part, it means that the affected scientists will have to travel more often to Savannah River.