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U.S. To Build World's Fastest Computer

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) will take on the challenge of building the world's fastest supercomputer, a task the Energy department said is critical to the nation's competitiveness.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced the $50 million grant, which will be funded over two years, at a Washington, D.C. press conference today.

ORNL's winning proposal was for the National Leadership Computing Facility (NLCF), a five-year partnership between ORNL and 20 other partners. It will be housed in the Center for Computational Sciences at ORNL, a high-performance computing research center established in 1992 by the Department of Energy.

"The proposal was to set up a facility that is truly national," CCS associate laboratory director Thomas Zacharia said. "It will be operated as a major user facility for the nation. Oak Ridge employees, employees of other national labs, universities and industry will have access to it."

ORNL's proposal topped those from Brookhaven National Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

The NLCF proposal was developed through workshops with researchers in many disciplines, from biotech to nanotech, energy to climate prediction. The group will evaluate requests to use the supercomputer and prioritize them based on the science and the quality of the research team, with priority given to projects for which use of the supercomputer might knock off years, Zacharia said.

NLCF comprises more than 20 partners, including Argonne National Laboratory, which will develop the software to run the supercomputer, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, which will focus on storage for the massive amounts of data generated. Cray, IBM and Silicon Graphics are among the development partners.

The CCS plans to surpass the world's current fastest supercomputer, Japan's 40-teraflop Earth Simulator, within a year by putting together computational resources for a sustained capacity of 50 trillion calculations (teraflops) per second with a peak capacity of more than 250 trillion teraflops per second.

The timetable calls for increasing the capacity of the current ORNL Cray X1 computer to 20 teraflops this year and adding a 20-teraflop Cray Red Storm in 2005. Argonne National Laboratory will install a 5-teraflop IBM Blue Gene computer, while ORNL will add a 100-teraflop Cray X2 computer in 2006, with a total of 250 teraflops available in 2007.

"It is no exaggeration to say that this machine will give both the U.S. scientific community and industrial sector a significant competitive advantage over the rest of the world," Secretary Abraham said in a statement.

Oak Ridge was established in 1943 to handle plutonium production for the World War II Manhattan Project. Today, with a staff of 1500 scientists and engineers and a $1.07 billion annual budget, Oak Ridge devotes 80 percent of its work to the Department of Energy, developing new energy sources, technologies and materials, and doing research in a variety of disciplines.

While the supercomputer technology is cutting edge stuff, Zacharia stressed that the real excitement is in what it will enable. "The goal is to build a computer that will be a building block for research," he said. "I'm excited about the possibility that this computer will enable breakthroughs in other scientific areas."