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Exascale for Energy

The role of exascale computing in energy security

How will the United States satisfy energy demand in a tightening global energy marketplace while, at the same time, reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Exascale computing — expected to be available within the next eight to ten years — may play a crucial role in answering that question by enabling a paradigm shift from test-based to science-based design and engineering.

Energy security has two key dimensions: reliability and resilience. Reliability means that energy users are able to access the energy they need, when they need it, at affordable prices. Resilience means the ability of the system to cope with shocks and change.

world energy consumption
Figure 1. World energy consumption is projected to grow by 44 percent over the 2006 to 2030 period, with non-OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries accounting for 82% of the increase. Source: EIA
U.S. oil production and imports
Figure 2. U.S. oil production and foreign oil imports (thousands of barrels per day). Source: EIA

In today’s world, energy security, economic security, national security, and environmental security are all closely interrelated. For example, world energy consumption is projected to grow by 44 percent over the 2006 to 2030 period, according to the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) 2009 International Energy Outlook (Figure 1). Competition for energy supplies is certain to increase; but with U.S. oil production declining (Figure 2), economic security and national security may be at risk unless we can obtain assured fuel supplies from reliable sources.

At the same time, environmental security requires that the world transition to carbon-neutral energy sources that do not contribute to global warming. This constraint is hardly altruistic. In the 2007 report National Security and the Threat of Climate Change, a blue-ribbon panel of military experts concluded that climate change is a threat multiplier in already fragile regions, exacerbating conditions that lead to failed states—the breeding grounds for extremism and terrorism—while adding to tensions even in stable regions of the world. Climate change, national security, and energy dependence are a related set of global challenges.

Improving America’s energy security while stabilizing the earth’s climate requires, in the near term, widespread implementation of existing conservation and energy efficiency technologies that reduce carbon dioxide emissions; in the mid-term, substantial improvement of existing energy technologies; and in the long term, development of new technologies and fuel sources.

Modeling and simulation using exascale computers—capable of one million trillion (1018) calculations per second—will make a significant contribution to mid- and long-term advances in energy technologies by enabling a paradigm shift from test-based to science-based design and engineering. Computational modeling of complete power generation systems and engines, based on scientific first principles, will accelerate the improvement of existing energy technologies and the development of new transformational technologies by pre-selecting the designs most likely to be successful for experimental validation, rather than relying on trial and error.

The predictive understanding of complex engineered systems made possible by computational modeling will also reduce the construction and operations costs, optimize performance, and improve safety. Exascale computing will make possible fundamentally new approaches to quantifying the uncertainty of safety and performance engineering.

This report discusses potential contributions of exa­scale modeling in four areas of energy production and distribution: nuclear power, combustion, the electrical grid, and renewable sources of energy, which include hydrogen fuel, bioenergy conversion, photovoltaic solar energy, and wind turbines. Nuclear, combustion, the grid, photovoltaics, and wind turbines represent existing technologies that can be substantially improved, while hydrogen and biofuels represent long-term R&D projects that will be needed for a carbon-neutral economy. More detailed analyses of these topics can be found in the reports listed at the end of this article. Examples of current research are taken from projects funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science at universities and national laboratories, with a special focus on research conducted at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab).

Click here for a printable PDF file of this entire report (2.7 MB).


Nuclear Power

Simulating Reactor Core Coolant Flow


Low-swirl combustion: Experiments and simulations working together
Thermoelectrics: Turning waste heat into electricity
Carbon capture and sequestration: Putting the brakes on CO2 emissions

The Electric Power Grid

Optimization and control of electric power systems

Carbon Cycle 2.0

Alternative and Renewable Energy Sources

Renewable Fuels: Hydrogen

Renewable Fuels: Bioenergy Conversion

Renewable Electricity: Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conversion

Scaling-up computational methods for solar energy research

Renewable Electricity: Wind Energy

Further Reading

Note: This report is an expanded version of an article originally published in SciDAC Review, No. 16 (2010), pp. 4–19.