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The fastest supercomputer in the United States is at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Most of the time, academic scientists and engineers use it to run mathematical models for studying things like nuclear fusion or the behavior of nanoscale materials. But every once in a while, an entrepreneur shows up with an idea that needs a supercomputer to become a reality, and that's how NPR's Joe Palca found another candidate for his project, Joe's Big Idea. He brings us this story about a California company that is using the computer to make better flood maps for insurance companies.
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: The Federal Emergency Management Agency produces flood maps that will tell you how prone a particular area is to flooding. But Dag Lohmann says these maps don't tell you everything you might want to know about what might happen in a flood.
DAG LOHMANN: You don't know whether the flood is two inches high, two feet high or two meters high.
PALCA: Lohmann is co-founder of KatRisk, a catastrophe modeling company in Berkeley, Calif.
LOHMANN: And when you think about catastrophe modeling, the logical progression to think about that would be how often would you get flooded. But you don't only have to know how often, you also have to know how severe is the flooding. You need to know how deep would the water be.
PALCA: In other words, in order to properly price a policy, an insurance company would want to know if a flood occurred, would repairs involve replacing a few carpets, or removing tons of mud and debris? Lohmann wants to make flood hazard maps that would provide that kind of information, detailed enough to make predictions for individual properties. But to make such detailed maps requires an enormous amount of computing.
LOHMANN: Ten years ago, this would've been immensely expensive to run those kind of computations.
PALCA: The Oak Ridge supercomputer changes all that, in part because it's a new kind of supercomputer. Instead of just traditional central processing units, or CPUs, the Oak Ridge computer uses lots of graphical processing units, or GPU's, the kind of processor computer gamers like for producing lifelike graphics.
LOHMANN: For flood modeling, the ideal is graphics cards.
PALCA: Lohmann says that's because they can do calculations in parallel.
LOHMANN: You have easily 2,000 to 3,000, now up to 4,000 little processors in each graphics card.
PALCA: So what you do is divide a map into a grid and each processor calculates the flood risk for a different square on the grid, all at the same time. Stitch all the individual squares together, and voila, you've got a highly detailed map. One especially nice thing for start-up companies like Lohmann's? Computer time is free. As a national lab, Congress has told Oakridge to work with all comers interested in using its supercomputer. The only catch is, you have to make your results public. In theory, that means another company could jump in and do the same thing Lohmann's doing. In practice, Lohmann says there would still be technical and scientific hurdles a competitor would have to overcome even with access to his results.
Lohmann isn't the only entrepreneur to approach Oak Ridge with an idea needing some supercomputing. For example, a company from South Carolina called SmartTruck used the Oak Ridge computer to design a system for reducing drag and saving fuel on long-haul trucks. Jack Wells is director of science of the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility.
JACK WELLS: People always bring their dreams here. They bring their dreams for what they wanted to do with their life's work. And we help give them a big jump forward by giving them access to our Titan supercomputer.
PALCA: So if you've got an idea that needs a supercomputer, I'm sure Jack Wells would like to hear from you. Joe Palca, NPR News.
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