Tiny Supercomputers The Size of a Sugarcube

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The world's most powerful supercomputer could be the size of a sugar cube and more energy efficient than you might ever imagine.

Researchers at IBM's Zurich Labs have developed a prototype supercomputer called the Aquasar that uses a water-cooling principle to keep the system from overheating. The Aquasar is a normal-sized computer; there's nothing tiny about it. But IBM thinks that the water-cooling technology that's proven effective in this supercomputer could work just as well in a vastly smaller machine.

The processors in today's computers get very hot, and they have to be cooled off, usually by air. IBM found that using water to cool off a computer's processors is 4,000 times more efficient than using air.

In fact, up to 50 percent of an average air-cooled data center's energy consumption and carbon footprint today is just from powering the necessary cooling systems to keep the processors from overheating.

Dimos Poulikakos is the head of the Laboratory of Thermodynamics in New Technologies, ETH Zurich. His team of researchers worked with IBM to help develop Aquasar.

"With Aquasar, we make an important contribution to the development of sustainable high performance computers and computer system," he says in a press release from IBM. "In the future it will be important to measure how efficiently a computer is per watt and per gram of equivalent CO2 production."

In IBM's water-cooling system, the processors and several other parts in the computer are cooled with water that is no warmer than 140 degrees Fahrenheit. That's still pretty hot, but it's enough to keep the computers from overheating. As long as the processors remain well below 185 degrees Fahrenheit, the system will operate normally.

This water runs throughout the computer system in what IBM calls "micro-channel liquid coolers," but they are essentially tiny tubes full of water. Every processor in the computer has these tubes directly attached to them, so no processor in the system overheats.

IBM says Aquasar is almost 50 percent more efficient than the world's most powerful supercomputers.

Bruno Michel of IBM's Zurich Labs tells the BBC a supercomputer's energy efficiency is a lot more important than it used to be. "In the future, computers will be dominated by energy costs; to run a data center will cost more than to build it."

IBM says it's important for supercomputers to become more energy efficient not just about saving money, but also about helping the environment. About two percent of the world's energy is consumed by building and operating computer equipment.

Until recently, the most powerful supercomputer in the world could perform about 770 million computational operations per second at a cost of one watt of power. The Aquasar prototype clocked up nearly half again as much, at 1.1 billion operations per second. Now the task is to shrink it.

Mark Stromberg is a principal research analyst at Gartner. As he tells the BBC, "We currently have built this Aquasar system that's one rack full of processors. We plan that 10 to 15 years from now, we can collapse such a system in to one sugar cube – we're going to have a supercomputer in a sugar cube."

Here's how IBM explains their new supercomputer, in a video the company released:

Conserving energy is just as important as generating more renewable energy in terms of preventing climate change. The idea is that we can use renewable energies like solar and wind where we can, like NFL stadiums and the White House, and conserve energy as well.

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