World’s Biggest Computer Grid Pours Water on Troubled Oils

In a unique experiment, five of the world’s fastest supercomputers, including Daresbury Laboratory-based HPCx, have been linked together into a seamless ‘Grid’ for the first time. This computational feat was matched by the unprecedented scale of the interactive calculation then carried out on this Grid, involving thousands of visualisations of around ten million times the amount of data used to play a typical home computer game. Once analysed, the data could help solve industrial problems and revolutionise the design of consumer products containing complex oil-and-water mixtures, from preventing crystallisation in oil pipelines and improving drug delivery to better shampoo and salad cream.

Scientists two continents apart plugged simultaneously into the combined processing power of HPCx and CSAR in the UK and the USA’s TeraGrid machines – loosely equivalent to 30, 000 typical PCs – to run massive three-dimensional simulations of some of the most ubiquitous and complex fluids on Earth. These adopt liquid-crystal like shapes called gyroids and their behaviour is near-impossible to predict by conventional fluid theory and simulation. ‘It’s a world-leading simulation, made possible by cutting-edge grid technology, and never before attempted on such a scale’, commented Dr Richard Blake, Associate Director of the Computational Science and Engineering Department at CCLRC Daresbury Laboratory, who coordinated the UK’s computational contribution to last month’s TeraGyroid Project experiment.

This was the first demonstration of the ambitious project, led by Peter Coveney, Professor of Physical Chemistry at University College London as part of a wider UK project, RealityGrid. The aim is to open up an entirely new field of science by exploiting the potential of interactive, high-performance computing. TeraGyroid Project scientists – the name comes from the terabytes (1, 000, 000, 000, 000 bytes) and Teraflops of data involved in the computation – want to predict the real-life behaviour of complex oil-and-water type mixtures because these are relevant to so many industrial, consumer and biochemical applications.

The new ‘Grid’ technology not only allows vast amounts of data to be handled but also speeds up its manipulation by allowing scientists to ‘steer’ a calculation as it is happening. As the simulation evolves, the models it produces are continuously converted to animated graphics that can be viewed on a laptop (and before long, also on a handheld PDA) anywhere on the Grid – each snapshot in time representing up to a billion numbers converted to pictures. Researchers can collaborate with colleagues anywhere on the Grid, throw out improbable scenarios, ‘joystick’ their way through the visual display, and return models to the supercomputers for the next stage in the simulation. ’Access to these supercomputing resources allows us to study the behaviour of complex interacting fluids on length and time scales which are totally unprecedented, in an area of utmost relevance to everyday life’, said Professor Coveney.

The TeraGyroid team scooped the High Performance Computing Challenge Award at the Supercomputing 2003 conference in Phoenix, Arizona on 20 November 2003 for their innovative demonstration.

The TeraGyroid Project was jointly funded by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the National Science Foundation, USA (NSF).

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