Home of future supercomputer ready for move-in

What causes tornadoes to form, how to prepare for the next big earthquake and how to create safer cars for the environment may all seem like unanswerable questions of science today — but when the Blue Waters supercomputer moves into its facility in 2011, scientists will be closer to finding those solutions and more.

Although the world’s largest supercomputer won’t be completed until 2011, its future home, the National Petascale Computing Center, will be open to the public for tours Thursday from 4 to 6 p.m.

The center, 1725 S. Oak St., along with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, will be hosting the community day, said Bill Bell, division director for public affairs of NCSA.

Bell said with so many people from the area wondering about the progress of the facility, the community day is a way of bringing people in and answering their questions.

“This is not the sort of thing people see everyday,” he said.

The center is 88,000 square feet and will not only house Blue Waters, but other supercomputers as well.

The data center — the main room of the facility — is 20,000 square feet and will hold Blue Waters as well as at least two other supercomputers. The space is more than three times larger than that in the NCSA’s current location on Springfield Avenue.

This main control room sits on a six-foot high raised floor in which every tile is removable, revealing a room below for wires, electrical components and workers to help keep the computers running smoothly.

“We want to give people a sense of what sort of infrastructure goes into running a supercomputer,” Bell added.

With security fences surrounding the property, the facility has been built with room to expand to twice its current size.

Potential users of the facility may be working on projects ranging throughout the fields of chemistry, physics, geology and more.

Researchers will need to submit a proposal, explaining what they want to look into, how they will use the supercomputer, the time and costs involved before being approved by a third-party panel to use the supercomputers.

One thing that differentiates Blue Waters and its facility from others around the world is that it will be cooled by water. According to IBM, this reduces energy requirements by about 40 percent compared to air cooling.

The Petascale Computing Facility has a room to house three chilled water tanks, each holding 10,000 gallons of water that will support Blue Waters.

These tanks are also exposed to outside air on one side of the building, allowing the air temperature to naturally chill the water, Bell said. Local air temperatures will keep the water cold enough for at least 70 percent of the year. The facility will draw from the campuswide chilled water loop for the remainder of the year.

Although this cooling tower infrastructure cost about $1.5 million to add to the building, the NCSA expects it to pay for itself in energy savings in the first year. The National Science Foundation will be paying utilities for the project.

In addition to the energy saved through water cooling, the facility hopes to achieve LEED Gold certification for its sustainable design and construction, Bell said.

Bob Wilhelmson, professor of atmospheric sciences, will helm one project planned for Blue Waters, which will involve a closer look into the formation of tornadoes to allow for an earlier and more accurate warning system.

Wilhelmson will work on a model of atmospheric sciences and thermodynamics to study how tornadoes are formed and what influences their evolution.

Blue Waters is a joint effort between the University, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, IBM and the Great Lakes Consortium for Petascale Computation.