Michael E. Papka

Home » 2013 » August

Accelerating the discovery of alternative fuel sources

In many ways, biofuel research is like modern day alchemy. The transmutation of biomass materials — which includes anything from kitchen and latrine waste to stalky, non-edible plants — into a sustainable and renewable energy source involves catalysts and chemical reactions. The process promises to help meet the world’s critical energy challenges.

Biofuel research can also be thought of as the ultimate multi-scale, multi-physics research problem. It represents several interesting biological supply-chain management problems. Not surprisingly, biofuel research spans several domains here at Argonne, and takes place in wet labs and joint institutes across the lab campus. There is also an exciting INCITE research project going on in the ALCF aimed at finding a more effective way to convert plant materials that contain cellulose, such as wood chips and switchgrass, into sugars, and then converted into biofuels.

A science team from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is using Mira to conduct large-scale simulations of the complex cellulose-to-sugar conversion process. Researchers are able to obtain data, such as the level of an enzyme’s binding free energy, which is difficult to obtain through conventional experimental approaches, helping to accelerate the process of screening and testing new enzymes. With such information, researchers will be able to identify potential enzyme modifications and then feed their discoveries into experiments aimed at developing and validating improved catalysts. Read the full research highlight here.

The beginning of a change

After posting a few months back on the exciting STEAM work at RISD, and the push to integrate art into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) curricula, I was eager to attend the “The Art of Science Learning” talk at Argonne this week, where I learned about a National Science Foundation program with similar goals.

The Art of Science Learning is a national initiative that uses the arts to spark creativity in science education. The goal of the project’s development activities is to experiment with a variety of “innovation incubator” models in cities around the country: one in San Diego (hosted by Balboa Park Cultural Partnership), one in Chicago (hosted by the Museum of Science and Industry), and one in Worcester, Mass (hosted by the EcoTarium). These incubators generate collaborations of different professionals and the public around STEM education and other STEM-related topics of local interest that can be explored with the help of creative learning methodologies.

Chicago incubator director Tim Morrison spoke about this initiative, and the yearlong effort starting this January to address the STEM challenges of urban nutrition.

Projects like these are aimed at exploring a framework to ultimately change the way children are educated in the U.S. — one that emphasizes creativity and innovation as a means to build a strong economy. I, for one, am extremely encouraged to see this movement gathering steam. Pun intended.

Spotlight on leadership-class computing

I’m pleased to announce that Jim Hack and I will be co-editing a special issue of Computing in Science & Engineering magazine on the topic of leadership computing, to be published in fall 2014. The goal of this issue is to explore how leadership computing is being effectively used to support real-world science and engineering applications. The topics of interest and submission guidelines can be found on the CiSE website.

Thanks, Reddit Users

I had a great time hosting an “Ask Me Anything” subreddit last Monday. I spent over two hours answering questions posted by Reddit users; mostly about the ALCF, how supercomputing is used in research, and where I think computing is heading. I didn’t know what to expect when I agreed to host this, but it was a lot of fun! Thanks for all the great questions. I’ll try to get to more of them in the next couple of weeks.

Extreme-Scale Computing Training Course: Class of 2013!

Today I met with the first class of young scientists and researchers to participate in the Argonne Training Program on Extreme-Scale Computing. The trainees are now into week two of lectures and hands-on sessions aimed at teaching them how to program massively parallel supercomputers. I chaired the afternoon session on data visualization and analysis, complete with a set up success stories, taught by colleagues from ALCF, the University of Oregon/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Kitware, Inc.

Training course organizers tell me this is an enthusiastic and motivated group; many of the participants remain long after the lectures end to engage the speakers on topics ranging from the latest performance tools to debugging to data analysis. Last week the group got special access to Argonne’s leadership computing resources, including Mira. This week they got a similar opportunity to experiment with application runs on Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s leadership system, Titan.

By funding this training course, the DOE is helping expand the user community of today’s high-end systems, but more importantly they are helping prepare a new generation of computer and computational scientists to keep our national priorities on track.