Roadrunner led the way for the lab

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LANL ranks in the top five stories of the year

By Roger Snodgrass

The year was the best of times and the second best of times for Los Alamos National Laboratory’s high performance supercomputer, the Roadrunner.

In May the Roadrunner was named the speediest supercomputer in the world for the third half-year in a row, a lifetime at the top, in terms of supercomputer years.

But then in November, a relentless competitor vaulted ahead. Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Jaguar, having trailed the Roadrunner in the last two ranking, zoomed out in front.

The Jaguar did 1.759 petaflops with 224,162 processors. The Roadrunner was still cruising about where it was before, at 1.042 petaflops with 122,400 processors. A petaflop is a quadrillion calculations per second, or a million billion.

The Roadrunner commanded attention not only for its speed but also for its unique hybrid design that combined off-the-shelf components, including video-game processors, similar to those used in the Playstation 3.

It was one of the most energy efficient systems in the world of high-powered computing.

Throughout the year, starting with its “three-peat” of a No. 1 ranking in June, the Roadrunner was the top story for the laboratory, attracting the most hits on the Internet and inspiring a wave of stories in the national and international press.

“Then in October, we released material about the science work Roadrunner was doing, especially the HIV work,” said lab spokesman Kevin Roark.

During its shake-out period the Roadrunner was dedicated to a number of unclassified projects, but one of the most publicized and talked about was the laboratory’s work with the International Center for HIV/AIDS Vaccine Immunology (CHAVI) consortium.

LANL HIV researcher Bette Korber and physicist Tanmoy Bhattacharya harnessed the Roadrunner to compare the evolutionary history of more than 10,000 genetic sequences from more than 400 HIV-infected people, looking for ways to make vaccines more effective.

Roark said the laboratory’s second most popular story was about Ardipithecus ramidus, a very early human ancestor, dated in part by LANL geologist, Giday WoldeGabriel.

“This time it is very old, 4.4 million years,” WoldeGabriel told the Monitor just after a special issue of the journal science came out featuring the new discovery. “It’s a partial skeleton, unlike the small fragmentary piece discovered in the past.”

The story was front page news around the world for days and considered by some observers to be the most important science development of the year.

The laboratory also received a great deal of attention for its role in a second-generation biofuels project to produce energy from pond scum, otherwise known as algae.

“Algae has the benefit of being better at sequestering carbon of any cellulose producer that we’ve found so far,” Greg Goddard, a LANL bioscientist said.

Goddard told the Monitor how he is adapting an acoustic focusing technology developed at LANL to concentrate and manipulate algae cells in order to harvest droplets of vegetable oil.

Two more highly topical subjects rounded out the top five of laboratory stories this year, Roark said.

One is about refocusing laboratory gene sequencing technology to develop better surveillance methods for diseases, like H1N1, that originated in animals.

By having the capability to sample and process information from millions of animals quickly and efficiently, Tony Beugelsdijk, a laboratory group leader told AP earlier this year, public health officials could have a better idea about future pandemic threats.

“Do we have vaccines for them? Do we have drugs for them? When is it likely to jump species?” he said.

Another hot topic, rated as the fifth most popular of the year at LANL, is likely to be back in the news again. That was the laboratory’s MagViz machine, designed to help air traveler’s validate their small bottles of liquid as safe to carry on airplanes. MagViz has been in prototype testing at the Sunport in Albuquerque and could help shorten at least one of the security-related inconveniences for air travelers.