UR brings internationally-ranked supercomputer, Conesus, online

U of R supercomputer

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — One of the most powerful computers in the world has come online recently in Rochester. The University of Rochester’s Lab for Laser Energetics (LLE) recently bought the 311th most powerful computer in the world.

At any given time, dozens of scientist are plugged in, running incredibly sophisticated simulations on Conesus – named after Conesus Lake in Livingston County.

The computer will be used to help study high-energy density physics, a state of the world that only occurs naturally under very specific circumstances, according to Dr. Valeri Goncharov.

Goncharov is the Theory Division Director at LLE. He says that high-energy density physics occur primarily at the center of the Earth. Down there, mass has a much higher amount of energy compared to mass at sea level.

”Our everyday intuition about how matter behaves under such extreme condition doesn’t apply. It’s really bizarre world,” Goncharov said. “Regular everyday experience doesn’t apply. That’s why at the laser lab, we study those exotic conditions.”

Dr. Goncharov said they and other national labs use lasers to mimic these conditions in their lab at a much smaller scale. This research has three major applications. The first: expanding our understanding of physics.

“In explaining how nature, how universe works, we want to study those conditions,” Goncharov said.

The second more practical application is the one that gets them most of their funding: understanding nuclear weapons.

“To make sure that we understand those conditions and to keep our stockpile safe and secure, we need to study those conditions at the lab,” he said.

The final application is nuclear fusion. Fusion is the process of splitting the nuclei, or the center, of atoms to create energy. This is similar to nuclear fusion which is the current method of obtaining nuclear energy. However, supporters say it is more powerful, more sustainable, and has almost no nuclear waste.

“At this [high-energy density] condition we can create so called fusion, where atom fuse and produce energy,” Goncharov said. “So we can collect this energy and make power plant out of it.”

However, that kind of research is still in the early stages on a global scale. While it’s impossible to put a timeline on not-yet-completed breakthroughs, Goncharov said the field will need hundreds of billions of dollars in research before folks can expect their electricity to come from a local nuclear fusion plant.

So, how does a supercomputer help with all this cutting edge research? Simulations.

“[Our work} requires sophisticated tools and sophisticated modeling to simulate those extreme conditions,” Goncharov said.

Conesus, as of the most powerful and power-efficient computers in the world, is the perfect amount of sophisticated to help run the high-level simulations they use in their research.

“Where you may have a bunch of desktop computers all capable of doing calculations, imagine what happens if you start to link them together,” said William Scullin, the high performance computing group lead at LLE.

Scullin is one of the many scientists that works with Conesus regularly. While Conesus is definitely a computer, it doesn’t look like a home desktop. There’s no screen, no keyboard, and there isn’t anywhere to plug your headphones in. Instead, there’s rows and rows of towers kept inside a large metal frame, with its own water-based cooling system built into the floor.

Next to Conesus sits a large black box taller and wider than a person that contains the supercomputer’s “near-infinite” storage. It’s called Erie.

To use the supercomputer, “most of our users are comfortably at their desks at home.” Scullin said.

Conesus comes with its own software. To use it, scientists open up the program on a regular computer that has the software downloaded.

“Someone opens up a terminal or opens up a web browser, and they can write and compile and run their own programs,” Scullin explained.

These programs are simulations of what happens when they fire a laser to try and create those high-energy density situations. Of course, Conesus isn’t meant to replace actually firing a laser, Dr. Goncharov said, but instead is meant to be one more avenue to study these circumstances. He said that researchers use the supercomputer’s simulations in conjunction with real-life experiments, to expand our understanding of these kinds of physics.

And while Conesus comes in as one of the best right now, Scullin said that it’s only a matter of time before something more powerful knocks it down further in the global supercomputer ranking.

While we keep building faster and bigger and better machines, the science keeps growing to fill it,” Scullin said. “Just as soon as this machine comes online, we’re already planning what’s next.”