Energy Department Offers $1.8 Billion to Dethrone China in Supercomputing

Timofeev Vladimir/

The department plans to develop at least two exascale supercomputers that would be more than 10 times more powerful than today’s reigning supercomputer.

The Energy Department is looking to partner with industry to build what would become the most powerful supercomputers in the world.

The agency on Monday published a request for proposal worth up to $1.8 billion to develop two exascale supercomputers, and a potential third supercomputer at some point in the future. The systems, which would each cost an estimated $400 to $600 million to build, are scheduled for completion between 2021 and 2023.

The computers would outperform China’s Sunway TaihuLight supercomputer, the most powerful machine in existence, by more than tenfold and run 50- to 100-times faster than the current fastest computer in the U.S. Technologists have hypothesized that exascale technology, capable of crunching more than one quintillion calculations per second, would mirror the computing power of the human brain.

For comparison, that’s about 3.1 million times faster than an iPhone X.

“These new systems represent the next generation in supercomputing and will be critical tools both for our nation’s scientists and for U.S. industry,” said Energy Secretary Rick Perry in a statement. “They will help ensure America’s continued leadership in the vital area of high-performance computing, which is an essential element of our national security, prosperity, and competitiveness as a nation.”

The technology would provide researchers with unprecedented modeling, simulation and data analysis capabilities and open the door for more powerful artificial intelligence and machine-learning applications. The systems would enable “breakthroughs” in high-energy physics, cancer research, nuclear security evaluation and countless other areas, according to the department.

The RFP calls for supercomputers to be deployed at both Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, and a third system to potentially be installed at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago.

The request comes as Argonne works to develop a separate exascale supercomputer authorized by Perry in June 2017. The system, dubbed Aurora, is scheduled to be up and running by 2021.

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