The visualization center for the SBEUC (Simulation Based Engineering User Center). Located at the Department’s National Energy Technology Laboratory in Morgantown, W. Va., the SBEUC will be powered by a high performance computer that will allow researchers to simulate phenomena that are difficult or impossible to probe experimentally. The results from simulations will become accessible through user centers that provide advanced visualization capabilities and foster collaboration among researchers. The SBEUC will be used for developing and deploying simulation tools required for overcoming energy technology barriers quickly and reliably.
Most of us do our part to reduce energy consumption in small ways – switching to high-efficiency light bulbs, driving fuel-efficient cars, and adjusting the thermostat are just a few examples of the small steps we can all take that can make a big difference.
But have you ever thought about the energy consumed each time you go online? High-performance supercomputers are the engines that drive our connection to the internet. These systems consume enormous amounts of electricity, creating a problem that continues to grow as dependence on technologies increases. A single web search consumes electricity equivalent to turning on a 60W light bulb for 17 seconds. That doesn’t sound like much, but if you multiply that over 1.6 trillion searches a year conducted globally, you have a tremendous strain on our energy grid.
NETL’s Simulation-Based Engineering User Center (SBEUC) is tackling this energy hurdle on two fronts. Having installed one of the world’s largest and most energy-efficient supercomputers at the center, NETL has lowered the energy its uses for computation and enabled the laboratory’s researchers to devise more efficient means to produce and use fossil energy.
Because these large, tractor-trailer size facilities can generate a lot of heat, a big chunk of the energy they consume is used for cooling. But the SCEUC has been able to achieve an efficiency that exceeds the Department of Energy’s target for the total ratio of power used by a computer data center to the power delivered to the computing equipment. The secret is a unique, dynamically controlled air/humidity system. The building enclosure itself is designed to help dissipate heat more effectively, while a high-tech system dynamically adjusts moisture content in the air — in much the same way a humidifier or de-humidifier works in your home.
In addition to earning NETL bragging rights for its energy efficiency, the SBEUC gives researchers access to huge parallel computing power. How huge? The system, currently ranked 67th of the 500 most powerful computers in the world, is capable of performing 503 trillion operations per second, about 1 million times faster than most high-end desktop computers.
NETL researchers tap into this power in many ways, including virtual experiments in the form of computational fluid dynamics (CFD), a method of using complex numerical models and algorithms to analyze the flow of gases or fluids. This process reduces experimentation time to weeks instead of years and allows scientists to adjust parameters on the fly. And it’s done at a much lower cost and with zero impact on facility operations and the environment.
One of the largest experiments running on the NETL system is looking at a process called chemical looping, a cleaner combustion method that uses a metal oxide as a primary source of oxygen to initiate the burn required to fire a reactor in a power plant. Because no commercial-scale chemical looping reactors exist anywhere in the world, NETL has built a large-scale, virtual model inside the SBEUC computer. The model is used in conducting experiments on various scenarios to optimize the chemical-looping process.
Another accomplishment is that NETL has been able to expand the use of its MFiX software, a computer code “template” that researchers use to model bubbling and circulating fluids. These stock calculations provide ready-made data on the three-dimensional distribution of pressure, velocity, temperature, and mass fractions to help researchers study behaviors in multi-phase flows.
The SBEUC has also made possible the efficient use of an NETL-developed software program for evaluating fuel systems called Carbonaceous Chemistry for Computational Modeling, or C3M. C3M has been used extensively to develop a model of the transport integrated gasifier at the DOE-sponsored National Carbon Capture Center (NCCC) in Wilsonville, Alabama.
The mission of NETL and its SBEUC supercomputer is to maximize the performance and output of fossil-fuel power plants, while reducing environmental impact of those systems. Using energy more efficiently now to develop ways to use energy more efficiently in the future is a winning combination for the SBEUC and for NETL, “the ENERGY lab.”