April 25, 2007
Stanford to lead new $105 million Army supercomputing research center
By David Orenstein
The U.S. Army has awarded a $105 million, five-year grant to a multi-institution consortium led by Stanford University to build a new home for the Army High-Performance Computing Research Center. The facility will enable advanced simulations to develop new materials for military vehicles and equipment, improve wireless battlefield communication, advance detection of biological or chemical attacks and stimulate innovations in supercomputing itself. The research may spawn civilian innovations as well.
"Modeling and simulation today play an equal role to theory and physical experimentation in discovery-driven engineering research," says Charbel Farhat, a professor of mechanical engineering and expert on supercomputer simulation who is also a member of the Stanford School of Engineering's Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering. "Using the most advanced high-performance computing resources, a research center of this magnitude has great potential for innovating technology and reducing design-cycle time."
Farhat will direct the multidisciplinary research center, which includes teams of engineers and scientists at Morgan State University in Maryland, New Mexico State University at Las Cruces, the University of Texas at El Paso and NASA. A private firm, High Performance Technologies Inc., based in Reston, Va., will provide technical expertise and staffing and other administrative support.
The grant will fund the development, equipping and staffing of a new center on the grounds of NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. It also will enable programs in basic research and fund collaboration, technology transfer and scientific training for the Army. Part of the center's mission, for example, will include hosting visiting scholars from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
A budget of $1.5 million a year will fund another substantial component of the project: an educational outreach program for middle- and high-school students. The center's participating institutions will work with nearby school teachers to augment their efforts to teach math, science, engineering and computing. The center will work closely with Stanford's Education Program for Gifted Youth, a distance-learning program that has served 50,000 talented students in 35 countries.
After five years, the grant includes an optional renewal for another five years and $105 million of funding. The Army began the high-performance computing research center program in 1989. The inaugural host institution was the University of Minnesota.
Key areas of research
One of the research areas the center participants will tackle is the development and testing of lighter materials that would enhance the agility of Army vehicles and infantry alike. Farhat will direct the center's efforts to simulate the strength and other properties of structures made from promising materials. Applications could range from better body armor to reconnaissance drones that a soldier could literally carry and launch from his or her uniform.
"Soldiers carry a lot of things: ammunition, batteries for radios and so on. Could we make these lighter?" Farhat asks. "Also, for example, could we build plastic tanks?"
A second focus area, led by Stanford chemical engineering and mechanical engineering Professor Eric Shaqfeh, is application of the center's computing power to problems in nanotechnology and biology.
The nanotechnology investigations will look at how to engineer novel materials starting from structures on the scale of atoms. Studies in biology will look at computationally intensive problems such as designing sensors and systems that can rapidly detect biological attacks with agents such as anthrax on the scale of individual rooms and entire cities.
Work on wireless communications, led by Stanford mathematics Professor George C. Papanicolaou, will attempt to improve how commanders and soldiers make use of the myriad streams of information coming in from sources including reconnaissance airplanes, submarines, sensor arrays and soldiers in the field.
The fourth area will focus on advancing computation itself through better hardware and algorithm designs. Pat Hanrahan, a professor of computer science and electrical engineering, will lead this research.
Farhat points out that while the center will focus on technology questions of intensive interest to the Army, the research will likely produce tangible benefits for society more broadly. Lightweight materials developed for armored vehicles might find their way into cars and trucks, making them much more fuel efficient, for example.
"A lot of things that have been developed for the military in the past are used today for civilian needs," Farhat says. "Penetration mechanics modeling and simulation codes, for example, are used today to simulate the crash of cars."
The center's focus on developing improved hardware and software for supercomputing also could yield benefits for the diverse research efforts that depend on the technology, such as climate modeling and aircraft design.
David Orenstein is the communications and public relations manager at the School of Engineering.