Supercomputer Will Support Major Research at WPI

Gift from IBM Will Aid Efforts in Fire Protection, Health Issues, Highway Safety and More

Contact: WPI Media Relations, 508-831-5616

WORCESTER, Mass. - Worcester Polytechnic Institute celebrated and demonstrated one of the world's fastest computers Oct. 17 with benefactors from IBM's T.J. Watson Research Center and Deep Computing Institute. IBM has provided WPI with an RS/6000 SP supercomputer. The machine develops computational models to help researchers tackle complex problems ranging from the mysteries behind accidental fires and explosions, to why plaque causes human arteries to collapse, to improved highway safety.

"This, by far, is the single most important academic gift for helping our program," said WPI Provost John F. Carney, vice president of academic affairs.

William Pulleyblank, director of mathematical sciences at IBM Research Division, noted the burgeoning growth of computer technology in today's world. "For the next 15 years, you will see that same acceleration," he predicted, offering praise for WPI's "serious purpose and commitment to problem solving."

Homer Walker, head of WPI's Mathematical Sciences Department, noted the profound impact the supercomputer will have on campus.

"It will allow us to do things we've never been able to do before," he said. The supercomputer will be used in life sciences and biomedical engineering, aerospace, computational modeling, materials science, computer and information technology, environmental studies and other areas.

Demonstrations by Julia Mullens, WPI's SP application scientist, on arterial blood flow and by Malcolm H. Ray, WPI associate professor of civil engineering, on safer highway guardrails, underscored the role the supercomputer will play in solving problems that require millions of mathematical calculations. The RS/6000 can perform 48 billion calculations per second and has 16 Power3 nodes for a total of 32 processors.

The wider benefits of the supercomputer, Mullens noted, include learning about complex fire dynamics, which may lead to far-reaching effects.

"Researchers are trying to predict what the effects of the fire will be so they can then rewrite fire safety codes," she said.

Ray demonstrated how computational modeling improves the safety of traffic barriers such as guardrails. Simulations of collisions help to discover where problems lie and how to correct them.

"When I first started we did nothing but (live) crash tests," Ray said, a method that's both expensive and time-consuming. "Now significant computer modeling can get things done even though these are very complex problems."

Ray has about 10 projects underway for a variety of research sponsors.

Through its Shared University Research Program, IBM Corp. gave WPI nearly $1.1 million in hardware and software. In addition, United Technologies and the National Science Foundation provided grants of about $240,000.

Users of the new supercomputer will include faculty as well as graduate and undergraduate students. "Ultimately, I see the whole campus using it for many demanding computational tasks," Walker said. "It will enable us to do cutting-edge research in computational modeling."

WPI, founded in 1865, is renowned for its project-based curriculum. Under the WPI Plan, students integrate classroom studies with research projects conducted on campus and around the world. For more information on WPI, visit its Web site at www.wpi.edu.