The General Purpose Cluster (GPC) is said to be the workhorse of SciNet. When it first came online in 2009, it was the 16th fastest supercomputer in the world. The GPC has performed over 10,000,000 computations for Canadian scientists to date. PHOTO: CREATIVE COMMONS

Super-computing to save the planet

In Business & Technology /

By Joseph Ho

Over 300 trillion calculations are completed every second behind an unmarked door in a mundane looking strip mall in Vaughan, Ont. For security reasons, the exact location of Canada’s largest supercomputer is a closely guarded secret.

SciNet is an IBM iDataPlex cluster computer that draws enough electricity to power 4,000 homes. The heat it produces would burn down its humble strip mall home if it weren’t for a unique cooling system that circulates water down to the microchip level.

Its 30,240 Intel Xeon core processors have been used for quantum mechanical physics and simulating the big bang theory in conjunction with the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva.

However, one Ryerson mechanical and industrial engineering professor is harnessing the immense power of SciNet for a more earthly pursuit.

Seth Dworkin wants to see the world breathe easier, and says developing engines that release less particulate matter – the black particles commonly known as soot – into the atmosphere is the way to make that happen.

“This is nasty stuff,” he says. “We’ve seen plenty of stories about smog blanketing cities in China. This is related to combustion engines, basically.”

Dworkin and his team of six graduate students use SciNet to run complex simulations that measure combustion chemistry, particle diffusion, fuel temperature, pressure, and a host of other variables.

With rapid industrialization in developing nations like China and India, Dworkin’s research could have a profound influence on climate change and pollution-borne illness.

Outdoor air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010, according a new data summary report released last Sunday.

The Health Effect Institute says the impact of China’s pollution equates to the loss of 25 million healthy years of life from the population.

Other studies have linked the poor air quality in China to serious aggravation of the heart and lungs, congenital birth defects, greater frequency of preterm births and low birth weight, a general increase in infant mortality, and cancer.

Dworkin’s findings show that modifications to an engine’s combustion chamber and improvements to the way fuel mixes with air can cut down on soot released into the atmosphere.

With rising oil prices, greater demand for sustainable energy, and increasing government emissions standards, the aviation and automotive sectors are demanding innovative solutions.

Dworkin is counting on these industries to pay for research now rather than face a fine later.

“What those companies do is freak out and come to people like me and say ‘can you help get us under this threshold,'” he says.

A major Canadian automotive manufacturer will sponsor Dworkin’s next grant application. His research is also being applied to residential and commercial heating as well as biofuels.

The Canadian Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario research fund provided $250,000 for Ryerson to buy 700 IBM Sandy Bridge processors for the SciNet facility, which is part of Compu Canada, a national body that facilitates high performance computer research. The University of Toronto is responsible for granting access to Canadian professors who submit a successful application.

This year Dworkin will control over 2,000 of SciNet’s CPUs. An ordinary desktop computer would take decades to process his work.

“I thought it was an important problem to tackle from a Canadian perspective,” he says. “We have a big manufacturing sector and have a climate of environmental concern. I felt that there is sort of a moral imperative for people to be researching this type of thing.”

With files from Jeff Lagerquist

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