The University of Saskatchewan and IBM on October 29 announced they will collaborate to apply new high-performance computer chips to achieve a greater understanding of how to build coal-fired electricity plants that emit less carbon dioxide.
The technology will also help determine how these plants can be modified to harness carbon dioxide, before it’s released, and transform it into more benign by-products or even into environmentally friendly fuels such as methanol.
The University of Saskatchewan will be one of the first academic institutions in North America to have the IBM microprocessor technology.
The collaboration is supported in part by IBM’s Shared University Research (SUR) program, created to foster partnership between academia and the industry to explore research in areas essential to innovation. Through SUR, the University of Saskatchewan will use IBM BladeCenter hardware technology equipped with new QS22 Cell Broadband Engine processors and related services.
The Cell Broadband Engine processors are commonly used in the popular Sony PlayStation 3. They were recently introduced by IBM for high-performance computing applications and can compute about 20 times faster than an ordinary computer chip – speed that is critical for the compute-intensive calculations the research requires.
“Computations that used to take 10 days to complete will now be completed in under one day,” says Raymond Spiteri, research lead and a University of Saskatchewan professor of computer science who previously had to apply for “airtime” on a computing system in Texas to run his simulations. “Getting results back faster enables us to be more ambitious in our simulations, and try more ideas and different scenarios.”
According to a 2001 International Energy Outlook report, coal was second only to oil as the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, accounting for more than 30 percent worldwide. The U.S. Department of Energy has estimated coal-burning for electricity generation accounts for 80 per cent of the carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S.
The IBM technology enables University of Saskatchewan researchers to create applications and run complex computer lab simulations to study chemical reactions that take place in power plant chimneys, testing how variations in temperature or pressure may affect the chemical properties of the emissions.
As part of the SUR program, recipients also receive access to IBM’s researchers and labs. Spiteri worked with IBM scientists Harrell Sellers, to build a model for the relevant chemical reactions, and Michael Perrone, to produce algorithms and code for the new Cell processors.
“Software has to be specially written for these Cell processors, so much research has to be done in terms of what kinds of algorithms will work well on them. Computer chips in general are migrating to this type of architecture, so the knowledge of how to program them will be an essential skill for our students to have in the future,” says Spiteri. “There are tremendous benefits to having the equipment on-site – from increased and more convenient access, to providing a base for a critical mass of interested people to congregate, to just being able to spontaneously try things out without having to apply for computer time first.”