Monday, March 16, 2009

Friedman: The next really cool thing

We are fans of screaming fast computers and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has one, number four on the last Top 500 list. All of the top nine supercomputers are in the U.S. (#10 is in Shanghai), with a monster on the drawing board:

IBM will deliver two systems: Sequoia, a 20 petaflop (quadrillion floating operations per second) system based on future BlueGene technology, to be delivered starting in 2011 and deployed in 2012; and an initial delivery system called Dawn, a 500 teraflop (trillion floating operations per second) BlueGene/P system, scheduled for delivery in the first quarter of 2009. Dawn will lay the applications foundation for multi-petaflops computing on Sequoia.

With a speed of 20 petaflops Sequoia is expected to be the most powerful supercomputer in the world and will be approximately over 10 times faster than today’s most powerful system. To put this into perspective, if each of the 6.7 billion people on earth had a hand calculator and worked together on a calculation 24 hours per day, 365 days a year, it would take 320 years to do what Sequoia will do in one hour....MORE from LLNL

Here's the headline story from the International Herald Tribune:

SAN FRANCISCO: If you hang around the renewable-energy business for long, you'll hear a lot of tall tales. You'll hear about someone who's invented a process to convert coal into vegetable oil in his garage and someone else who has a duck in his basement that paddles a wheel, blows up a balloon, turns a turbine and creates enough electricity to power his doghouse.

Hang around long enough and you'll even hear that in another 10 or 20 years hydrogen-powered cars or fusion energy will be a commercial reality. If I had a dime for every time I've heard one of those stories, I could buy my own space shuttle. No wonder cynics often say that viable fusion energy or hydrogen-powered cars are "20 years away and always will be."

But what if this time is different? What if a laser-powered fusion energy power plant that would have all the reliability of coal, without the carbon dioxide, all the cleanliness of wind and solar, without having to worry about the sun not shining or the wind not blowing, and all the scale of nuclear, without all the waste, was indeed just 10 years away or less? That would be a holy cow game-changer. Are we there?

That is the tantalizing question I was left with after visiting the recently completed National Ignition Facility, or N.I.F., at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, 50 miles east of San Francisco. The government-funded N.I.F. consists of 192 giant lasers — which can deliver 50 times more energy than any previous fusion laser system. They're all housed in a 10-story building the size of three football fields — the rather dull cover to a vast internal steel forest of laser beams that must be what the engine room of Star Trek's U.S.S. Enterprise space ship looked like....MORE