Supercomputer upgrade to benefit university engineers

Engineers at Edinburgh University will have access to one of the most powerful supercomputers in Europe from autumn this year.

The High-End Computing Terascale Resource (HECToR) facility will receive an upgrade and expansion from US supercomputer manufacturer Cray, leaving 827 teraflops of processing power at the disposal of researchers.

Prof Arthur Trew, who oversees HECToR, said it will enable engineers to extend current projects and to look for novel research problems.

Traditionally, supercomputers have been used to model fluid dynamics for things such as airflow over aircraft wings, as well as internal combustion mechanics in engines and the structural behaviour of buildings.

Trew said that, in addition to these areas, there are a number of other projects at various stages of development, the latest being fire modelling.

‘Can you simulate the progress of a fire through a building faster than real time? Such that you could give information to the firemen so they’d know if there was a danger that this will collapse or that will happen and better guide them,’ he said.

After they established some initial models, they were able to test them by setting fire to a block of flats that was due for demolition. Trew said it confirmed the basic principles but also threw up additional challenges.

‘I think this is a really interesting problem, but it’s proved to be an immensely difficult one,’ he added. ’This is one of the areas where we will need the bigger machines because the scale of the computational problem is so enormous.’

The HECToR team has also been working with Oxford University in modelling cardiac arrhythmia.

‘Obviously the heart is a very complicated electrical pump and it’s essential that the various components of the pump work in sequence, otherwise it can lead to arrhythmia and sudden cardiac death,’ said Trew.

One of the most effective ways of treating this condition is through ablation — essentially destroying some of the cells from where the faulty rhythm seems to be originating.

‘But you don’t necessarily know exactly where you want to put the cuts, so this project is trying to simulate a heart and then see if, on the basis of electrical activity on this synthetic heart, you could guide the surgeon where to put cuts in order to correct the rhythm,’ he added.

Trew said there may be some technical issues with the upgrade initially, but he hopes it will hit the ground running in October or November.

‘Then it’s a case of people standing back, looking at the research programmes and saying: “We have a new machine that is more than twice as powerful as the old one; given that, what are my new scientific priorities and how does this change the way I approach my science?”’