Scientists and engineers at Exeter University have had their research efforts boosted through the univeristy's recent investment in a supercomputer.
The IBM RS/6000 SP will underpin a variety of research projects being carried out at the university. According to some of the professors involved, the computer's power will enable their research to go beyond limits previously believed uunreachable.
Currently the academic institution is carrying out research into such areas as the weather on Jupiter, anti-counterfeiting measures through the study of butterfly wings, Thin Film Photonics for the next generation of liquid crystal displays, and protein folding - known in scientific circles as the 'grand challenge' - to name just a few of its projects.
Tough hardware required for the task
Unsurprisingly, with such studies under way, the university was looking for a powerful, fast computer that could carry out substantial number crunching and handle increasing workloads without disrupting critical use. And for Exeter University, the IBM supercomputer fitted the bill, fighting off competitors such as Cray and Silicon Graphics.
The RS/6000's 222MHz 64-bit multiprocessor gives it the power to perform around 60Gflops (60 trillion floating point operations per second) and hold approximately 1 terabyte of data. Or, to put a slightly less technical perspective on it, the RS/6000 SP is eight times faster than the supercomputer which defeated chess giant Garry Kasparov in the 1997 World Chess Championships and is capable of holding more data than is in the British Library.
At a special supercomputer 'unveiling ceremony' held recently at Exeter University, the institute's Professor Richard Catlow said: "Model building is essential in the scientific quest of our understanding of the universe. With computers we can build models of real systems - like atmosphere, for instance - faithfully and realistically, and they (computers) have given us accurate knowledge of those systems.
"The constant processing power of computers not only allows for general improvements in the process, but also enables us to maintain the UK's competitive position in areas of research. It will lead to all sorts of new achievements in physics, science and engineering."
Examining Jupiter's weather
Information from the Galileo space probe is being analysed by a team of applied mathematicians at the university, in order to form a model of Jupiter's weather patterns. The difficulty is that the atmosphere on Jupiter is thousands of kilometres thick and has wind speeds of up to 200 mph.
Up until now, it has been impossible to build a model of these winds correctly. But the power of the supercomputer will enable the university's research team to form three-dimensional simulations of Jupiter's atmosphere and so enhance their understanding of the planet's interior.
Such research will go towards work being done to develop models of the atmosphere on Saturn. It is hoped this will be done in time for the Cassini mission's arrival on that planet, scheduled for 2004.
Study of planetary magnetic fields
The conundrum of how planetary magnetic fields are generated is also the subject of new research being embarked upon at the university. It follows the Galileo mission's discovery that one of Jupiter's moons, Ganymede, has an internal magnetic field.
It is believed that convection in the liquid metal cores of planets provides the power that lies at the heart of planetary magnetism. It was not possible to work out the equations which controlled this process, until the arrival of the supercomputers. The machine at Exeter has provided the team with the power needed to deduce such intense calculations, so making it possible for them to build a model of the essential power processes present in the interiors of moons and planets.
Butterfly wings and liquid crystals
There are two areas of interest for the Thin Film Photonics team at Exeter - Liquid Crystal Displays (LCDs), and the interaction of light with microstructured surfaces. The latter study is based on the study of butterfly wings, an area in which Exeter is a leader.
The team is headed by Professor Roy Sambles, from Exeter's School of Physics. He explains that by understanding how the intricate make-up of a butterfly's wing scales can produce vivid colours when they interact with light, the principles could be harnessed and applied to produce synthetic structures. This in turn would aid the development of optical devices in areas such as communications and anti-counterfeiting processes.
Says Sambles: "Take a blue butterfly: depending on which angle light falls on the wings, it may then change to purple. If we could replicate this in a synthetic colour, then we could incorporate something of that nature into, say, dollar bills. To a degree this process is being used in the production of Dutch and Swiss banknotes, and it definitely makes it difficult for forgers to copy."
The supercomputer comes into play by enabling a model to be built of the optical response given, so allowing the researchers to understand what is seen.
Samples adds: "Three years ago we could look at butterfly wings and guess how it all worked. But now, with the help of the supercomputer, we can know exactly how it works and predict what will happen."
In collaboration with Sharp, the Thin Film Photonics team is being aided by the new computer into research regarding liquid crystal displays.
At the moment LCDs are capable of producing high quality full colour video images, but their switching speed is limited. The research is focused on increasing the switching speed and brightness of future LCDs.
Biological science is also making its use of the supercomputer, through the university's work on macro molecular structures. The main thrust of the university's research in this area is that of protein folding.
Proteins control all cellular processes in the human body. They are made up of strings of amino acids joined together almost like chain links. Proteins fold into incredibly complex three-dimensional shapes, which determine their function.
A change in the shape of the protein will change the function of the protein. But not all the functions are to the body's benefit. The slightest change in a protein's shape could turn a protein wanted by the body into a disease harmful to the body.
Calculations to date on how protein folds ahave usually been resolved by carving out three-dimensional structures, determined by X-ray or NMR methods. But now, with the aid of the supercomputer, it is possible to build structures and show various types of folding directly from protein. And, it is helping the research team understand the many new proteins being discovered.
Benefits of the protein-folding research
Understanding the way in which proteins fold will inevitably lead to a clearer insight into diseases and how to fight them. Exeter's Professor Jenny Littlechild, head of protein structures, confirms that such research and observation could possibly lead to defeating diseases such as cancer, by understanding how it interacts with other proteins. She cautions, however, that it is early days yet.
It is also hoped that such research, backed by computer power, would lead to pharmaceutical companies being able to design drugs customised to the specific needs of individuals - tailor-made drugs for a patient's genetic make-up and particular illness. It would also create the opportunity for doctors to respond faster to changes in bacteria and viruses, that can cause them to be immune to drugs developed to kill them off.
Developments in orthopaedic models
Questions surround the design of orthopaedic implants, such as hips and shoulders, even though hip replacements are regarded as common surgical operations. A team of researchers at Exeter's school of engineering, in collaboration with the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospitals, are looking particularly at the possibility of developing realistic, patient specific, three-dimensional, numerical models of human femurs. It is proposed that this could be done automatically from data obtained from multiple medical imaging modalities.
Work is also being carried out on numerical modelling of head injury mechanisms, and the design and use of injury mitigating structures or environments like helmets and dashboards. For example, younger people wearing adult helmets for protection: as younger people's heads are more compliant than adults, the design of an adult helmet may not be adequate in protecting them.
Helping with head injuries
The supercomputer is of specific help to the team in their understanding of how certain types of injury would be likely to affect the head.
As Dr Phillipe Young, senior lecturer at Exeter's school of engineering and leader of the research team in biomechanics, explains: "We can point to a spot anywhere in a three-dimensional model of a head that has been injured, and the computer is able to tell us where the stresses and strains are occurring."
This type of research has already stirred a lot of interest within police departments investigating cases of child abuse related to baby shaking.
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