Energy gives colleges access to super CPUs

Setting a new standard for government/academic partnerships the Energy Department announced plans to give five universities unprecedented access to the agency's supercomputers and $250 million in funding to develop advanced software tools for nuclear weapons research.

Under its Academic Strategic Alliance Program DOE will give the California Institute of Technology Stanford University the University of Chicago the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Utah 10 percent of the total operating time on three supercomputers located at DOE laboratories.

This is the first time anyone other than government scientists will have access to these powerful machines. Energy Secretary Federico Pena said it has been several decades since the federal government has had a relationship as close as the one these alliances are designed to produce.

The funds will be used by the universities to develop centers where researchers will use simulation to tackle complex problems such as designing gas turbine engines for jet airplanes understanding accidental fires and explosions caused by the storage of flammable materials and testing new solid rockets.

The methodology and software developed to study the topics will then be applied to DOE's Defense programs for strategic weapons analysis said Siegred Hecker director of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

"We'll be pushing the boundaries of simulation capabilities " said Steve Koonin vice president and provost of the California Institute of Technology. "We'll be developing software and algorithms to exploit the incredible hardware that's become available. This is an extraordinarily challenging task - comparable to the challenges that were faced by Los Alamos [to develop the first atomic bomb] 50 years ago " he said.

The work is part of DOE's Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI) which is designed to boost supercomputing power 1 000 times by 2004. The $900 billion program was developed in response to President Clinton's July 1993 ban on underground nuclear testing. Under ASCI scientists are designing the next five generations of supercomputing software that will be used to simulate underground nuclear tests and monitor the nation's aging stockpile.

Koonin said the university's team will investigate the effect of shock waves induced by high explosives on various materials - work that applies to mine accident rescues and building demolitions as well as nuclear weapons.

"We have to make certain that we have supreme confidence in the safety and reliability of these weapons " Los Alamos' Hecker said.

Pena said the benefits of the applications will go beyond nuclear testing. "President Clinton has challenged us to find a way to keep our nuclear stockpile safe reliable and secure without nuclear testing " Pena said. "Our universities are being unleashed to do what was previously thought impossible. I believe these alliances will produce a flood of new technologies and ideas that will improve the quality of our lives and boost our economy. Before today a shortage of computing power was one of the reasons our most difficult national security problems had no solutions."

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