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New supercomputer at University of Illinois may help predict the weather

Imagine being able to more accurately predict what happens before a natural disaster occurs. A new supercomputer at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign may help us get closer to that reality.

Today the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) is unveiling Blue Waters, a brand new supercomputer that is the first of its kind for a university.

Blue Waters is a 5500 square foot computer with over 10,000 computer processors, that can run more than 1 quadrillion calculations per second.

For comparison, the average home computer only contains 1 computer processor.

Trish Barker is spokesperson for NCSA.

Trish Barker, a spokesperson for NCSA says Blue Waters will enable researchers to make mathematical models for various environmental conditions which will help them figure out how to prevent or even preempt natural disasters.

“ A lot of what people are doing are mathematical modeling,” Barker said. ”They have equations that they feel do a pretty good job of what’s happening in the real world like a tornado or hurricane. They want to make models that match what’s happening in the world more and more closely. And that’s why they want more and more powerful supercomputers that enables them to do more calculations in a shorter period of time.”

In order to use Blue Waters, researchers must request time through the National Science Foundation. Once approved they can access the data through a login that will connect them to the supercomputer.

Barker said researchers can  log in remotely even from a smartphone.

“They can study earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, how viruses infect our cells, high energy physics, the formation of galaxies, it’s really a very powerful tool across many different areas.”

There may be other supercomputers similar in size and power, but Barker says Blue Waters is the most powerful on any university campus.

At it’s peak usage it consumes about 12-13 megawatts of power which according to Barker is enough energy to electrify a small town.

Because of it’s large size, the university has placed the supercomputer in a large server room of 20,000 square feet that uses a passive cooling system.

The National Science Foundation funded an initial grant of  $208 million toward building Blue Waters. And the state of Illinois provided funding for the 20,000 square foot building that houses it (and eventually other network data and equipment) for $60 million. 

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