DOE Grants Encourage Computers with Muscle

Accelerator Lab, ODU share funds for complex research

Armed with a $3.3 million grant for its faculty to conduct complex experiments using supercomputers, Old Dominion University's College of Sciences wants to establish a new center to help launch similar projects in the future.

The U.S. Department of Energy announced Tuesday that it would award $57 million to various institutions — including the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, which is getting more than $2.5 million for two projects — to develop powerful computers capable of processing huge amounts of data.

ODU received $3.3 million in the first year of the five-year project and will lead a group of five other universities and three national laboratories in testing computer simulations as a way of solving scientific problems too complicated for a traditional lab. A supercomputer, capable of processing trillions of bits of information in a second, allows researchers to figure out the natural occurrences of weather patterns, chemical reactions and nuclear fusion.

"You can design, you can simulate experiments so accurately that they can be done completely within the computer system," said Tom Isenhour, dean of the ODU College of Sciences.

The proposed Center for Computational Sciences at Old Dominion University would bring together faculty from various scientific fields already collaborating on the use of large-scale computers, Isenhour said. The university's board must approve the establishment of the center, which Isenhour hopes will attract more research dollars to the school.

"One of the reasons that we've been so competitive in the field is we've hired quality faculty in computational sciences in a variety of departments," he said.

Jefferson Labs, a division of the Energy Department, will use its $1.9 million grant to pursue the theory of quantum chromodynamics.

Scientists there and at two partner national labs will measure the behavior of tiny particles such as quarks and gluons to find out "the way those little things react," said William "Chip" Watson, head of high-performance computing for the Newport News lab.

"That particular theory is not one you can solve with pencil and paper," he said.

It involves huge amounts of numerical data, he said, and "a desktop computer would take 50 years to do a simple calculation."

The grant will buy the lab hundreds of computers and their combined processing power and pay for scientists to develop software.

In the next three years, Jefferson Labs hopes to acquire thousands of computers to build its own supercomputer, powerful enough to qualify as one of the top 100 fastest systems in existence, at a cost of about $15 million, Watson said.

With another Energy Department grant worth about $750,000, the lab will help develop a national computing grid, Watson said, "where a researcher can tap into all this computer power and doesn't care where the computer is."