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More Power to Learn

It lets you do things that might be impossible in the real world

Published in the June 2022 Issue Published online: Jul 09, 2022 Business Cory Hatch for INL Communications & Outreach
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WHEN KYLE SCHROEDER BEGAN HIS NUCLEAR ENGINEERING DEGREE at Idaho State University, he relied on his personal computer to run complex simulations required for his job as a research assistant.

Specifically, Schroeder was trying to model how fluid might flow through a new type of heat exchanger—a discovery that could someday make nuclear reactors more efficient. “I have a pretty robust personal computer, and it would take 12 to 20 hours,” said Schroeder, who is working toward his master’s degree. “On the supercomputers, I can run something in less than an hour.”

A supercomputer is vital
For Schroeder, who might run 100 such simulations each month, access to a supercomputer is vital. “Doing that many simulations is not possible unless you have a supercomputer like this,” he said.

Now, INL has transferred use of one of its computers, Falcon, to Idaho’s three universities permanently. The change comes after the 2019 installation of the new Sawtooth supercomputer, funded by the Office of Nuclear Energy under the Nuclear Science User Facilities (NSUF), alongside Falcon at the Collaborative Computing Center (C3) located in Idaho Falls, a building funded to grow and expand the partnership between INL and Idaho universities.

While Falcon will remain housed at C3, the machine will be dedicated to Idaho university students and faculty and operated through the Center for Advanced Energy Studies (CAES), a research, education and innovation partnership between INL, Boise State University, Idaho State University and the University of Idaho. With this transfer, Idaho university students and faculty will no longer need to compete for computer time with researchers from the national laboratories.

“Falcon would likely rank in the top 25 fastest academic computers in the country,” said Eric Whiting, director of the Idaho National Laboratory Advanced Scientific Computing Division, the group that manages INL’s high-performance computing resources.

Computing power for modeling and simulation
The overwhelming majority of supercomputing power goes toward modeling and simulation efforts.

“Science is like a stool with three legs,” Whiting said, “one leg is theory, one leg is experiment, and the third leg of that stool is computer modeling and simulation.”

“Theory and experiments provide amazing insights, but have limitations,” Whiting continued. “If you’re building an airplane, and you want to know if it will fly under a myriad of different conditions, you can either build a prototype and try to recreate all possible scenarios or utilize modeling and simulation to better understand system performance under any condition. It lets you do things that might be impossible in the real world.”

An investment in the future
For INL, the benefit is twofold. First, many students and faculty using Falcon for modeling and simulation are part of collaborations with INL researchers.

Second, it’s an investment in INL’s future. “We’re building statewide expertise,” Whiting said. “It’s training a workforce. A lot of INL’s employees come from Idaho schools. And it’s not just INL. Even if they don’t work for us, having that expertise will help them get jobs.”

This investment is not the only one INL has made with Idaho universities. From internships to joint research projects, faculty and students from Idaho universities have been key to INL’s success.

Even though the machine will remain at C3, the universities plan to make modifications to Falcon, like clearing all information from the system. “When it wakes up for university use, it is like a new computer is born,” Whiting said.

About Idaho National Laboratory
Battelle Energy Alliance manages INL for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy. INL is the nation’s center for nuclear energy research and development, and also performs research in each of DOE’s strategic goal areas: energy, national security, science and the environment.

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