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5 geeky ways CSIR’s Lengau supercomputer will aid researchers

Petaflops. Cores. Terabits per second. Cool terms, bro, but what do they actually mean in relation to day-to-day life?

Yes, Lengau – the CSIR Centre for High Performance Computing‘s (CHPR) new supercomputer – is the most powerful in Africa (and will eventually boast enough processing power to rival Dexter’s Laboratory) but how does the publicly-funded system help ordinary South Africans?

RelatedCSIR’s new supercomputer is Africa’s fastest, aptly named Lengau

This is a pressing concern for the general populace, especially since a 24 000-core supercomputer doesn’t come cheap. So while some might think the new computer will only aid CSIR staffers and government officials to run 5000 instances of Overwatch on Ultra in the most epic LAN party ever, Lengau will be used for much more worthwhile purposes.

Here are just a few of the many examples.

Biological sciences

Sequencing the various building blocks of organic life on this planet isn’t as simple as whipping out a pencil and protractor.

Biological or DNA sequencing, to give its full name, is the science of determining the order and relation of organic molecules within a nucleic acid. DNA’s effectively the building blocks of humans, and indeed other organisms that take refuge on our planet. And as one can imagine, at such a minute scale, a ton of data requires processing.

Lengau, according to Nicky Mulder from UCT’s biological computational group, will be used to process this data, to better understand the nature of, well, nature on earth. That’s to put it extremely simply.

And this process uses big data (literally). Just 500 human genomes (a complete set of genes) require around 350TB of storage. Factor in the many other species on the planet, of plants, of animals, and the numbers only begin to swell.

Climate modelling

Global warming and climate change are two huge buzz-terms used in politics and science at the moment, but it’s in the latter where it has blossomed into a huge, and important, big data project for Africans.

Mary Jane Bopape and Francois Engelbrecht are two meteorological scientists studying the phenomenon, and are using Lengau to crunch the hard numbers.

Their work centres around models and projections of the impact of climate change on Africa at large. These models can be used to better understand, plan and (if we adopt an optimistic mindset for a moment) prevent widespread damage as a result of climate change.

Their project is Africa’s very first that encompasses the entire Earth as a system, and they hope to put South Africa on the map as only the second southern hemisphere country to add projections toward the 2018 UN FCCC.

But how does Lengau come into play? The supercomputer allows Bopape and Engelbrecht to produce extremely detailed models — some with a 1km-squared resolution — that paint a more accurate story. They were previously limited to smaller resolutions, which in turn, led to less accurate projections.

For the real nerds out there: running a 1km-squared model of Southern Africa through Lengau using 864 of its cores, now takes less than half-an-hour.

Energy storage

The electric car is fast becoming a must-make on every manufacturer’s list. Just look at BMW, Toyota and especially Tesla for the proof. But storing all that power is more complicated than simply connecting an electric motor to a battery and poof.

Professor Phuti Ngoepe, an expert in energy storage from the University of Limpopo, was on hand to explain just how complicated this process is, and how Lengau is making it slightly easier.

Using the supercomputer, models of various compound combinations, quantities, and reactions can be processed, better determining how best to craft these dense batteries for efficiency, large energy storage quantities and fast charges.

It might not sound all that important in 2016 for South Africa, but the battery is likely the future of human existence, especially if cutting greenhouse-gas based emissions is a priority. Elon Musk also thinks that’s the case, and so do other South African startups.

Mining industry and material sciences

The University of Limpopo is using Lengau’s power for mineral research as well – a cornerstone for South African industry and its economy.

Using Lengau, the University of Limpopo is also better projecting the depths and locations of certain minerals below South Africa. After all, we have a good idea of where most of the platinum is found in South Africa, but what about the area beyond Pretoria and Rustenburg?

Mintek, a research firm vested in mining technology, is also firmly vested in using Lengau for pyrometallurgy studies. Essentially the science of melting metals, pyrometallurgy projections helps the mining industry determine the effect that gasses have on metals at high temperatures.

Astronomy and big data

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project in the Karoo is also using Lengau for data processing. And although this might be primarily in search of extraterrestrials, it’s no less fascinating.

According to SKA’s Jasper Horrell, the MeerKAT project will require over 6PB (that’s petabytes, or 6000TB) of data storage at CSIR’s CHPC centre. That’s largely thanks to the massive amount of data collected by the dishes.

SKA plans to use 64 dishes in the Karoo – with around 20 currently standing – which will search for life beyond our planet, as well as study foreign bodies like black holes, the mysterious unknowns of dark matter, and possible habitable planets. The project hopes to scale beyond the Karoo in the future, with dish arrays as far north as Africa’s central Atlantic coast.

SKA’s ultimate goal is to build an “Amazon cloud for research,” according to Horrell, and Lengau will provide an integral part of its endeavours towards that goal.

Feature image: SKA Africa

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