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From Solar Energy to Climate Change: How Science Uses Supercomputers

It's Supercomputing Month! Learn how supercomputers are helping improve solar energy, battery lifetimes & more

June 2, 2014

Did you know that supercomputers are helping energy researchers improve solar power efficiencies and unlock the mysteries of photosynthesis?

Or that environmental scientists are using supercomputers to confirm the existence of global warming while plasma physicists are using them to better understand how to control fusion energy?

June is Supercomputing month at the Department of Energy (DOE), so we thought we’d take a look at how research conducted at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) is helping the DOE advance energy and environmental research and improve the world around us.

More energy-efficient materials: Much research is being done to facilitate the use of lithium batteries in electronic devices. Using supercomputers at NERSC, researchers have found a new avenue for such research: the use of disordered materials, which had generally been considered unsuitable for batteries.

Meanwhile, computer simulations conducted at NERSC demonstrated how using a new type of material could enable thinner, more lightweight solar panels that provide power densities – watts per kilogram of material – orders of magnitude higher than current technologies.

Nanostructures half the breadth of a DNA strand could improve the efficiency of light-emitting diodes (LEDs), especially in the “green gap,” a portion of the spectrum where LED efficiency plunges, according to simulations run at NERSC.

Carbon sequestration: Environmentalists have long lamented the destructive effects of greenhouse gases, with carbon dioxide (CO2) often accused of being the primary instigator of global climate change. As a result, efforts are under way to find ways to prevent, capture and sequester CO2 emissions. But some researchers contend that CO2 represents a virtually unlimited energy resource that can be recycled into carbon-neutral fuels and chemicals, reducing both the amount of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere and our dependence on fossil fuels.

Fusion energy: Controlled nuclear fusion has held the promise of a safe, clean, sustainable energy resource for decades. Now, with concerns over global climate change growing, the ability to produce a reliable carbon-free energy source has taken on new urgency. Fortunately, supercomputer simulations are helping energy researchers make headway in their quest to better understand what makes a fusion reaction “tick.”

In a related study, simulations run at NERSC demonstrated how overcoming ion instabilities in hot plasma – the source of energy in a fusion reactor -- can boost the reactor’s energy output.alt

Photosynthesis: Understanding the inner workings of photosynthesis is key to developing new man-made, sustainable, clean energy resources. Simulations run on NERSC supercomputers are helping researchers do just that – unlock the molecular mysteries of the photosynthetic process.

Climate change: A team of scientists led by Gil Compo of the University of Colorado and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory used the Hopper supercomputer at NERSC to demonstrate that land surface air temperatures estimated using a number of other historical observations largely match the existing temperature measurements spanning the years 1901 to 2010 – in essence confirming that global warming really has been occurring since the early 20th century.

About NERSC and Berkeley Lab
The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) is a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science User Facility that serves as the primary high performance computing center for scientific research sponsored by the Office of Science. Located at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, NERSC serves almost 10,000 scientists at national laboratories and universities researching a wide range of problems in climate, fusion energy, materials science, physics, chemistry, computational biology, and other disciplines. Berkeley Lab is a DOE national laboratory located in Berkeley, California. It conducts unclassified scientific research and is managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy. »Learn more about computing sciences at Berkeley Lab.