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House briefing highlights value of supercomputers for science, industry

On April 28 the four co-chairs of the House Science and National Labs Caucus—Reps. Randy Hultgren, Chaka Fattah, Ben Ray Luján, and Alan Nunnelee—sponsored a briefing on the value of federal investment in high-performance computing. The event was held in conjunction with the one-year anniversary of NCSA’s Blue Waters supercomputer, a petascale powerhouse capable of performing quadrillions of calculations per second that supports a wide range of science and engineering research across the country.

Rep. Hultgren (IL-14th) kicked the event off by recognizing the critical importance of high-performance computing as a driver of discovery and innovation. NCSA Director Ed Seidel then highlighted how the Blue Waters supercomputer has advanced science and engineering research in just its first year of operation:

  • Because Blue Waters can perform quadrillions of calculations every second and works with quadrillions of bytes of data, scientists are able to tackle larger, more challenging problems that cannot be addressed on other computing platforms.
  • Blue Waters is used by hundreds of researchers across the country, in at least 29 states.
  • Research on Blue Waters encompasses almost every area of inquiry: severe weather, earthquakes, viruses, RNA and other complex biomolecules, supernovae, sub-atomic physics, and more.

Several scientists described the breakthrough research they have been able to achieve thanks to high-performance computing systems like Blue Waters:

  • Patrick Reed (Cornell University) uses the Blue Waters supercomputer to better model the forces that act on the satellites we rely on for communication, navigation, and environmental monitoring. Satellite data can even be used to predict famines, floods, and drought—without an effective satellite network, we could be left in the dark. Reed’s work using Blue Waters provides better predictions of how the orbits of the satellites will change over time, allowing them to be placed more accurately and effectively. “We’re compressing thousands of years of scientific exploration into weeks of computing on Blue Waters,” Reed said.
  • Beverly Sanders (University of Florida) is a computer scientist who works closely with computational chemists, helping to develop a parallel programming environment that enhances scientists ability to simulate complex systems. Some of their recent research using Blue Waters has dealt with RDX, an explosive widely used in military and industrial applications.
  • Richard Arthur (GE) described how GE, an NCSA Private Sector Partner since 2010 and a partner in the recently announced Chicago-based Digital Lab for Manufacturing, used federally supported computational resources to conduct fundamental research into the formation of ice—a process that impacts the company’s wind turbines, aircraft, and other products. Arthur represents the industry perspective as a member of the Blue Waters Science & Engineering Team Advisory Committee. He emphasized that leadership-class computational tools are as necessary for discovery and innovation as other scientific instruments, such as telescopes and supercolliders.
  • John Sarrao (Los Alamos National Laboratory) explained that more than 80 LANL teams have used computing systems supported by the National Science Foundation, including the petascale Blue Waters system at NCSA. “We see a clear need for an advanced computing ecosystem [that] includes a diversity of platforms with a diversity of sponsors,” he said.
  • Klaus Schulten (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) refers to his research as using a “computational microscope” because using supercomputers to simulate the interactions of biomolecules provides an unprecedented view of the dynamic activities occurring in living cells. Using Blue Waters, his research team has already achieved breakthrough results, determining for the first time the chemical structure of the protein capsule of HIV.

The briefing was followed by a reception that featured remarks from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise and Farnam Jahanian, the leader of the Computer & Information Science & Engineering Directorate of the National Science Foundation. Also attending were University of Illinois President Robert Easter and Irene Qualters, head of NSF’s Division of Advanced Cyberinfrastructure.

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