What Could You Achieve With 135,000 Laptops?

The Department of Energy just awarded 1.7 billion processor hours on its two supercomputers, which have the brains of 135,000 laptops. Fifty-seven innovative research projects will look at projects in clean energy, medicine, climate change, and other areas.


In August of 2005, a truck heading up Spanish Fork Canyon, on Highway 6 in Utah, suddenly toppled over. It was carrying 18 tons of explosives, which ought to have remained stable, but didn’t. The blast was so great that it left a massive crater, destroyed the road and a stretch of railway, and blew away the side of the nearby mountain. Yet why exactly the crash was enough to excite the explosives from a stable state to a volatile one was a mystery.

Now, with the help of donated supercomputer time from the Department of Energy, a research team from Utah hopes to get to the bottom of this mystery, by logging 15,000,000 processor hours conducting simulation to “examine different packing arrangements of the devices to prevent a transition … to an extremely violent detonation reaction.” Their research project is one of 57 that have just been awarded a collective 1.7 billion processor hours on its supercomputers–the largest amount ever awarded by the agency.

The awards are being granted through the Department’s acronymically named Innovative and Novel Computational Impact on Theory and Experiment (INCITE) program, which is open to all scientists. On top of avoiding sudden highway explosions, the supercomputing time will also help researchers develop novel forms of clean energy, model regional climate change in higher resolution, and deepen our medical understanding of conditions like Parkinson’s Disease and aneurysms.

Two DOE supercomputers will be helping the researchers crunch data–the IBM Blue Gene/P (nicknamed “Intrepid”), which is like 26,000 laptops working in concert to solve a problem, and the Cray XT5 (“Jaguar”), which is like 109,000 laptops.

“This is a great example of how investments in innovation can help lead the way to new industries, new jobs, and new opportunities for America to succeed in the global marketplace,” Secretary of Energy Steve Chu said in a press release. On top of academic awards like that given to the explosives experts from Utah, GE and Boeing were among the major companies who won awards–the former to investigate how to build better wind turbines, and the latter to look into how to refine jet engine design.

[Image: Argonne National Laboratory]

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.