I couldn’t help punning in the headline, but this new supercomputer at the U.S. Argonne Lab has only a little in common with psychologist Wilhelm Reich’s supposedly energy-gathering orgone box. The new computer, called Mira, which Argonne announced earlier this week, will be used to help the Department of Energy identify new materials and chemistry that could improve national competitiveness.
Mira, when she’s installed next year, will be a 10-petaflop computer–meaning she’ll be capable of performing 10 quadrillion calculations a second. Argonne already has a supercomputer, Intrepid, based on an earlier version of IBM’s Blue Gene technology. It’s a half-petaflop machine. Here’s a comparison that gives you a good idea of what a lot more processing power can do for scientists: Using the current generation of supercomputers operating worldwide, it takes about two years to run a simulation of how a human heart reacts to a new medicine. A 10-petaflop system would cut the wait time down to two days.
Argonne researcher Larry Curtiss hopes all this added computing horsepower will help him develop new materials that could stretch the miles traveled per charge on an electric car battery up to 500 miles, making EVs practical for many uses. “The new computer will help us create the next generation of batteries and make the United States more competitive,” says Curtiss.
Curtiss leads a research team that specializes in nano-materials science. A project devised by his team is among 16 that will get first crack at Mira. The team will use a computational method called density functional theory to take on materials science problems in four areas–biomass conversion to fuel, electric energy interfaces, catalysis for discovering new materials and lithium-air batteries for EVs.
A key factor in these kinds of experiments is being able to use enough atoms that scientists get a realistic response from the simulation. Working with catalytic processes, for instance, the team has been able to model reactions involving about 1000 atoms. With Mira, they’ll be able to model reactions involving several thousand atoms.
Those little things add up. Fifteen years ago, researchers at Argonne produced some of the scientific breakthroughs that ultimately made possible GM’s new Chevy Volt. Now they’re working on improving the density of batteries, so cars can travel much further on a charge, and on making batteries less volatile, so they won’t explode. If Curtiss and his colleagues succeed, it won’t just be a victory for the United States; it will be a big deal for the entire planet.