Center for Strategic Communication

A supercomputer simulation of a fusion reaction. Photo credit:

An ongoing issue of importance to ASP is the advancement of next generation science and technology. One of the advancements that underlies the great leaps in science over the past 50 years is advancements in computing power. The fact that washing machines today have more computing power than the Apollo 11 rocket to the moon shows the great advancements in this area.

Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced bipartisan legislation last month to help push forward supercomputing.  The bill, S. 3459, would provide funding through the Department of Energy to support research in supercomputing. An update of earlier legislation passed in 2004, the “Department of Energy High-End Computing Revitalization Act of 2012” would authorize spending of $110 million for FY13, $220 million for FY14, and $300 million for FY15.

Supercomputers  are really powerful computers that can conduct extremely complex calculations. This can be useful in a variety of fields related to national security, including quantum physics, plasma physics, climate research and nuclear fusion research.

American scientists have made enormous progress in supercomputing. Earlier supercomputers were useful in weather forecasting. In the 1990s, advancements in supercomputing paved the way for the U.S. to conduct simulations of nuclear weapons tests, allowing the military to affirm the effectiveness and integrity of the nation’s nuclear stockpile without having to actually test nuclear weapons.

For fusion, supercomputers allow scientists to enhance their understanding of plasmas – the hot gases used in fusion reactors that are critical to making fusion work. Controlling and managing plasma remains one of the largest scientific barriers to commercializing fusion reactors. The funding support for supercomputing will allow national labs like Oak Ridge National Lab and the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab to continue groundbreaking research into the next-generation of supercomputers.

The benefits of supercomputing often spillover into industries that are already a commercial reality, such as advanced manufacturing, medical research and energy. Therefore, developing the next-generation of supercomputers is not only important for making long-term scientific achievements possible, but also for maintaining our competitive edge in a globalized economy.

For decades, government support for high-tech research has been successful at pushing the boundaries of science forward. The legislation put forth by the three Senators is a good example of the two political parties coming together to support something for the good of the country.