The Week in Review
Here is a collection of highlights from this week’s news stream as reported by HPCwire.
Nuclear Reactor Simulated on a Supercomputer
A New York Times article this week reports on the development of a new kind of nuclear reactor that uses depleted uranium for fuel, posing a much lower risk than traditional nuclear reactors. The so-called traveling wave nuclear reactor is emerging as a potential game-changer according to top science and energy officials.
The article explains the design:
This reactor (pdf) works something like a cigarette. A chain reaction is launched in one end of a closed cylinder of spent uranium fuel, creating a slow-moving “deflagration,” a wave of nuclear fission reactions that keeps breeding neutrons as it makes way through the container, keeping the self-sustaining reaction going.
Usually, these types of projects are publicly-funded, but, in this case, a private research firm, TerraPower LLC, is running the show. And although this is a private venture, the team gets support from MIT, DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory and other scientific centers.
According to the head of TerraPower, former Bechtel Corp. physicist John Gilleland, the reactor, once ignited, could continue to react for 100 years.
“We believe we’ve developed a new type of nuclear reactor that can represent a nearly infinite supply of low-cost energy, carbon-free energy for the world,” Gilleland said.
The project relies on supercomputing resources to simulate and verify the traveling wave concept. The supercomputers are also engaged in finding alloys for the reactor cylinders that can withstand the heavy damage caused by neutron impacts.
The story is replete with lots of “ifs” and “whens” and acknowledges that no one has actually created a working deflagration wave. However, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Technology Review magazine selected the traveling wave reactor last year as one of 10 emerging technologies with the highest potential impact.
Gilleland said that we may see a commercial version of the reactor in 15 years, pending a working physical prototype.
NSF Award to Create Center Dedicated to Reducing Power Consumption
The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded $24.5 million to UC Berkeley researchers for the development of a multi-institutional center whose aim is to increase the energy-efficiency of electronics. The lofty goal? A million-fold reduction in the power consumption of electronics. The five-year NSF grant will be used to establish the Center for Energy Efficient Electronics Science, or E3S.
From the release:
To reduce the energy requirement of electronics, researchers will focus on the basic logic switch, the decision-maker in computer chips. The logic switch function is primarily performed by transistors, which demand about 1 volt to function well. There are more than 1 billion transistors in multi-core microprocessor systems.
Eli Yablonovitch, UC Berkeley professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences and the director of the Center for E3S, explains that the transistors in the microprocessor are what draw the most power in a computer, giving off heat in the process.
According to Moore’s Law, named after Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore, the number of transistors on an integrated circuit double every two years. But Moore also predicted that the power consumption of electronic components will drop dramatically.
Researchers plan to design lower-voltage transistors, noting that the wires of an electronic circuit could operate on as little as a few millivolts. Power needs drop by the square of the voltage, so a thousand-fold reduction in voltage requirements adds up to a million-fold reduction in power consumption, says Yablonovitch.
With the increase in information processing needs skyrocketing, the importance of changing the underlying power requirements at the most basic level of our computational technology cannot be overstated.