NSUF Article

NSUF’s High Performance Computing Powers Innovation

Monday, February 17, 2020 - Newsletter, Facility Highlight

When the Wright brothers were building the world’s first aircraft, the inventors’ primary concern was whether or not their machine could get off the ground. It’s easy to assume that neither Orville nor Wilbur were thinking about the infinite number of variables associated with airplanes today, many of which are unpredictable; or so it may seem. Today aerospace engineers utilize modeling and simulation to remove some of the danger the Wright brothers first experienced.

“Aviation is a high cost and consequence industry,” said Eric Whiting, Division Director for Advanced Scientific Computing at Idaho National Laboratory (INL). “Anything you can do to optimize the cost and reduce the risks is hugely beneficial.” 

Like aerospace, the National Science User Facilities’ (NSUF) High Performance Computing (HPC) capabilities can be utilized to further nuclear energy and materials science research through modeling and simulation. The computing capabilities are comprised of INL’s three supercomputers: Falcon, Lemhi and the latest addition to the HPC fleet, Sawtooth. Each supercomputer is powered by tens-of-thousands of computer processing cores that serve as the hub for modeling and simulation at INL, with connections across the state, and country, and that number is only expanding. 

“Modern science has been described as a stool with three legs: Experiment, theory and modeling and simulation,” Whiting said. “INL is uniquely positioned with wonderful experimental facilities and many talented minds focused on experiments. Our incredible HPC capability helps compliment that with supercomputers. It’s an important part of modern science.”

Using HPC, researchers can virtually replicate the conditions of an entire nuclear reactor to test how it operates in normal and extreme environments that, like aviation, could not safely be replicated inside of a commissioned reactor. For example, researchers can study how a reactor behaves and operates with variables such as a loss of coolant or even a power failure among other things. Ultimately, this can not only better optimize a plant’s overall efficiency, but also help adapt designs to be better prepared for emergency situations. 

Additionally, Whiting says HPC can be used in the process of synthesizing nuclear materials. Previously, a researcher might have been tasked with physically studying and selecting the material from a pool of 100,000 potential prospects with the best structural, optical and chemical properties to operate in a nuclear reactor. Each of them would have had to have been individually tested, a process that could take several weeks to complete. Instead, those 100,000 potential candidates could be analyzed through a modeling and simulation program that reduces the number of material candidates to a tenth of the previous size at an even faster rate, allowing researchers to focus their efforts on materials with highest probability of success.

“High Performance Computing is an integral part of science,” Whiting said. “Without it, we go back to trying many experiments that become costly and less effective. With modeling and simulation, we can reduce the number of experiments and better focus on the areas of highest interest.”

Whiting stated that HPC is causing a natural evolution across all fields of science, with modeling and simulation acting as the catalyst. In his eyes, this is generating a greater need for the computing capabilities in areas of research that wouldn’t otherwise think about utilizing HPC. In the past, these capabilities have been used to help augment the fuel efficiency of long-haul trucks by instituting aerodynamic skirts to reduce emissions. The effects are even felt at home with Procter & Gamble products, like diapers and shaving razors showing that these resources extend far beyond the realm of possibility.

With the addition of Sawtooth, NSUF’s HPC capabilities expand even further. Housing over 100,000 computer processor cores, the new supercomputer will be able to perform complex mathematical calculations at six times the speeds of Lemhi and Falcon. This new computing power drastically reduces the time needed to evolve advanced technologies from concept to the actual marketplace. 

As always, NSUF is always looking for new ideas to be explored using HPC. Those interested in potentially using its resources can submit a Rapid Turnaround Experiment (RTE) proposal through the program’s website, which accepts applications three times per fiscal year. In addition, users can also submit a proposal during the Consolidated Innovative Nuclear Research call.