The University of Illinois boasts a variety of resources and facilities available for its vast community of engineers, scientists and other researchers, with the Blue Waters supercomputer one of its largest and most advanced.
Blue Waters supercomputer is an open science, high-functioning computer designed to run programs and computations at speeds 3 million times faster than the average speed of a computer. The supercomputer can also complete 1 quadrillion calculations per second, and is incorporated with highly advanced data storage, memory storage, and communications.
Blue Waters is managed by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) and is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), as well as the University of Illinois. Greg Bauer, a program manager for Blue Waters at NCSA, said this supercomputer is the largest in the U.S., and is also the largest housed at any university worldwide.
The supercomputer is available to any researcher, scientist, professor, and even students, who want to use its functions for their work. Several MechSE researchers have used it extensively.
Seid Koric, a research professor in MechSE, said it has been most beneficial for calculating and solving problems in chemistry and materials at the nano scale.
Koric, who is also the technical program manager at NCSA, said one of the greatest advantages of Blue Water has been that it has given him the chance to compute problems in a much faster way than he would have been able to with a typical computer.
For instance, he said he has been able to understand the structure of certain materials, such as in the textile industry where they are now looking at every single fiber, which is giving them a better idea of the structures.
“I have definitely accomplished more. It would take very long—and may be impossible—to run these things on desktops,” Koric said. “Especially when you are doing design and you want to see how the system is going to be for different parameters.”
Brian Thomas, C.J. Gauthier Professor Emeritus and research professor in MechSE, has used the supercomputer to understand the flow pattern in a continuous steel caster—calculations that are important for studying the details of steel on a minuscule scale. Thanks to Blue Waters, he can now conduct experiments that will help ensure higher quality steel from the steel caster.
“What makes Blue Waters so accessible is its design,” said Koric.
Set up like a large data center, there are 12 rows, with 24 refrigerator-size cabinets inside each row. When the supercomputer is running, it can use up to 10 megawatts of energy, and it’s designed to consume high levels of energy.
Blue Waters has helped yield numerous accomplishments over the years. One major achievement, said Bauer, was led by the late Illinois physics professor and visionary Klaus Schulten. The supercomputer helped Schulten’s research regarding HIV capsids, which required a molecular dynamic simulation. The research “gave insight into the outer shell of the HIV virus,” said Bauer, which allowed scientists and even pharmaceutical companies the potential to develop drugs that could more effectively combat HIV.
Additionally, scientists from the Southern California Earthquake Center use Blue Waters to model faults down San Andreas. Using this information, engineers can develop a better of understanding of which cities and neighborhoods will experience more tremors during an earthquake.
“Other societal impacts include modeling of what happens when severe solar systems around the sun impact the Earth, and there has been some interesting work by several researchers that look at how that impacts our terrestrial power grid,” said Bauer.
Although MechSE students need assistance and permission from a professor to use the system, they can gain access (via a proposal process) if they need it for a project of their own.
Along with the functional operation of the system, the Blue Waters project also involves leadership training for managing such a large system, improving applications, and other efforts such as providing internships, fellowships, research opportunities, and working with other centers and faculty on campus to help understand the system.
“The supercomputer is really useful for getting people in the community to be able to extend the power of what they can do with their computational models,” Thomas said. “I think every generation of supercomputers has really been vital, and Blue Waters is no exception. It’s the latest one and of course, it’s the fastest and the best.”