White House highlights Materials Genome Initiative

Editor's note: this article is by David Turek, IBM's vice president of High Performance Computing Scalable Systems.

Today, I am participating in a White House event highlighting the first results and next steps of the Materials Genome Initiative (MGI), which President Obama announced almost one year ago.

The name of this initiative is a riff on the Human Genome Project because it intends to marshal and organize significant scientific resources to gain a deep understanding of the structure and behavior of a vast array of materials. The goal is to help U.S. companies become more economically competitive by the application of  discoveries in materials science to the development of new and improved products in a host of industries at a far greater speed and much lower cost than is currently possible.   

IBM is well aware of the challenges in advancing materials science. IBM Research started the Battery 500 Project in 2009 to develop a new type of lithium-air battery technology that is expected to improve energy density tenfold -- dramatically increasing the amount of energy these batteries can generate and store. And we invented semiconductor silicon germanium, laying the groundwork for explosive advancement in wireless products.

There are a host of other projects in materials science that could lead to new desalinization membranes, development of biopolymers for medical applications and new materials used to break the memory bottleneck in advanced computers. The list goes on for considerable length, but the pioneering insight from IBM has been to advance material research by linking experimental techniques with large scale simulation and modeling.     

To realize the goals of the MGI, it is essential that we build the right kind of supporting infrastructure. It needs to have three key characteristics:
Argonne National Lab (ANL) is an example of how the right infrastructure can support materials science breakthroughs. Their IBM BlueGene/Q supercomputer, named Mira, will be a 10-petaflop computer -- meaning it will be capable of performing 10 quadrillion calculations a second, making it one of the fastest in the world. ANL researcher Larry Curtiss plans to use this added compute power to the aforementioned Battery 500 project.

A key factor in these kinds of experiments is being able to use enough atoms that scientists get a realistic response from the simulation. Working with catalytic processes, for instance, the team at ANL has been able to model reactions involving about 1,000 atoms. With Mira, they’ll be able to model reactions involving tens of thousands of  atoms.

Over at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL), they will soon flip the switch on a 20-petaflop IBM Blue Gene/Q supercomputer named Sequoia. In 2005, researchers from LLNL and IBM were awarded the Gordon Bell Prize for pioneering materials science simulations, and the level of performance achieved, conducted on the Blue Gene/L supercomputer at LLNL. In that project, simulation capability was increased from thousands of atoms to millions of atoms, and the simulations still took many hours. With the advent of Sequoia, LLNL scientists will be able to run the same simulations in a few minutes -- or increase the fidelity of the model by adding 100s of millions more atoms.  

In the late 1990's when the Human Genome Project was coming to fruition, a whole new industry -- bio-informatics -- was born. Hundreds of new companies burst into existence seemingly overnight. My belief is that we are at the cusp of a similar phenomenon with the MGI and IBM plans to be present at the dawn of a new age in materials science.

Other Materials Genome Initiative Projects

World Community Grid: Clean Energy Project

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