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May 9, 2012

US Energy Secretary Talks Supercomputing

Robert Gelber

Finding clean, renewable sources of energy that can supply demand has become a major issue in the US and elsewhere. While an obvious fix has not emerged, Steven Chu believes supercomputers will be integral in tackling the problem.

Chu is President Obama’s Secretary of Energy and a Nobel Prize winner. As head of the DOE, he oversees facilities that host some of the most powerful supercomputers in the world.  Chu recently spoke with Forbes to discuss how such systems are solving today’s energy challenges.

The secretary noted that supercomputers have assisted in streamlining large vehicles such as aircraft, but also played a pivotal role in increasing fuel economy for 18-wheeler trucks. In the latter case, a company called BMI designed a piece of plastic that, when installed underneath a truck, resulted in 7 percent fuel savings. Chu points to another example where a supercomputer was used to simulate and optimize diesel combustion behavior prior to parts production.  

The main advantage to using HPC systems for energy research is their ability to model very complex environments. “Previously, scientists had two pillars of understanding: theory and experiment,” explained Chu. “Now there is a third pillar: simulation. Scientists can now simulate live situations with all of their complexity, and begin to get answers that can be verified in the real world.”

These simulations could result in major breakthroughs for safer and more efficient energy production as well. Nuclear fuel rods suffer from corrosion and buildup (referred to as “CRUD”), which can result in unexpected operation, heat pockets and other potentially dangerous and expensive side effects. Chu believes that modeling nuclear reactors, taking into account oxidation, material properties and neutrons, would lead to better reactor design and safer operation. Because nuclear energy is a highly regulated industry, advancements discovered through simulation could potentially save years of design time.

The secretary said the Department of Energy has been participating in the simulation space in every way possible. The department has developed software for HPC systems along with implementing and maintaining facilities staffed with computer scientists and mathematicians.

Full story at Forbes