posted August 23, 2005

NSF Grant Funds "Supercomputer"

Hope College will soon host the most powerful supercomputer in West Michigan, thanks to a new grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Hope is one of four colleges that will share the equipment. The new computer, which is actually a cluster of 100 computers, will be housed and maintained at Hope, and will be used in research at Hope as well as at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.; Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn.; and Macalaster College in St. Paul, Minn.

The grant totals $379,609, and the new cluster will be operational in early 2006.

By sharing the grant as a consortium, the four schools have gained access to a powerful research tool, according to Dr. William Polik, who is the Edward and Elizabeth Hofma Professor of Chemistry at Hope and is also the principal investigator, or administrator, of the grant.

"This will be the most powerful computer in western Michigan," Polik said. "It will be several hundred times more powerful than an ordinary desktop computer."

The four schools' interest in the cluster reflects the growing importance of the field of computational science and modeling, according to Polik.

"It is a field that is developing rapidly," Polik said. "While we've known the equations that describe nature for a very long time, we haven't been able to solve them except in basic, simple cases. With computers becoming more powerful, we can now study complex, real-world problems."

The new supercomputer will be applied to research involving atmospheric chemistry, biologically active molecules, catalysts, chemical reactions and proteins. Because the cluster computer is used through the Internet, Polik noted that even though the three colleges in Minnesota are hundreds of miles away they will have the same immediate access to it as Hope.

According to Polik, the computer's power derives from the combination of the individual machines. The 100 processors will be linked in parallel, with the calculations they need to perform being divided among them. Together, they can work faster in the same way that a crew of workers can build a house much more quickly than one person doing the entire job. Calculations that formerly would have taken weeks to complete will instead take only hours.

The individual computers, Polik said, are much like high-end personal computers, only without components like monitors and keyboards. They will be grouped compactly in two towers each about two feet by three feet at the base and eight feet tall.

Polik said that institutional history that includes a long-standing emphasis on involving undergraduates in research as well as recent developments have positioned Hope well to serve as the new supercomputer's host site. Hope's new science center, completed in phases in 2003 and 2004, houses laboratory space designed specifically for computer clusters - including an air conditioning system that would be strong enough to cool five individual homes, simply to counter the heat the computers generate. The college already has two clusters totaling 48 computers, equipment purchased through grants awarded to Hope in 2004 by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and Research Corporation, and has added a full-time staff person to manage the equipment.

Also through the HHMI grant, Hope has been developing an interdisciplinary minor in computational science and modeling that integrates biology, chemistry, computer science, mathematics and physics. The minor includes two introductory courses, a variety of classes that students take in their primary disciplines, and then a capstone course that brings together students from throughout the science division.