TO THE untrained eye, they may look like a row of large storage units covered in colourful children’s murals.
But scientists say Edinburgh’s new generation of £125 million supercomputers has the potential to discover new inhabitable planets, tackle climate change and even solve the global financial crisis.
The UK’s most powerful supercomputers, based in Edinburgh, have a combined power equivalent to every person on the planet carrying out 250,000 calculations per second all at the same time.
And the machines, known as HECToR and BlueGene, have entered a new phase in their development.
HECToR (High-End Computer Terascale Resources), Edinburgh’s original supercomputer, housed at Edinburgh University’s Advanced Computing Facility, is entering phase three of its life, with £13.9m new funding. It is already ten times as powerful as it was when it started out in 2008.
HECToR has a memory of 90 terabytes – equivalent to more than 180,000 iPhones. It also has one petabyte of disk space for storing data. If an iPhone had that much space, it could hold 200 million tracks. To listen to each one would take from now until the year 3153.
In recent months HECToR has been joined by BlueGene, the most energy-efficient supercomputer in the world. Using only the electricity it takes to power a light bulb, it can perform the calculations of 100 laptops. It is capable of a quadrillion, or a thousand trillion, calculations a second.
Researchers say the computers will help forecast the impact of climate change, hone our understanding of the structure of matter, project the spread of epidemics and provide answers about the evolution of the universe. They will also be able to project whether planets around distant stars could be suitable for human habitation.
Among dozens of projects undertaken by the supercomputers, they have calculated how dinosaurs would have walked and tried to work out how to prevent aircraft turbulence.
Professor Arthur Trew, director of HECToR, admitted: “They really look like big wardrobes.”
However, he said they sounded like a jet engine and users had to wear ear protectors because of the amount of water needed to cool them.
David Willetts, UK minister for universities and science, who attended the launch of phase three of the superconductor project yesterday, said they were “incredibly exciting” and enabled scientists to “tackle some of the crucial scientific challenges that we face”.
“In order to out-compete we have to out-compute,” he added.
He suggested that, among their achievements could be helping businesses such as Unilever invent new shampoos because complex calculations were necessary to work out whether they would solidify over time.
When asked whether the machines could solve the global financial crisis, he replied: “Does not compute”.
But Sir Timothy O’Shea, principal of the University of Edinburgh, said he thought it was “an extremely feasible thing to aspire to”.
HECToR phase three has been funded by a £13.9m grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.
Also announced at yesterday’s event was the winner of a schools art competition to design a pictorial representation of the work being carried out by HECToR. The winning picture, designed by 16-year-old Lily Johnson from Norwich, has been placed on the front panels of the computer.