UC Merced Connect: Chemist uses superfast PC for science

December 11, 2012 

— Professor Christine Isborn is doing quantum chemistry at the speed of graphics.

Isborn is using the same graphics computer cards (graphical processing units, or GPUs) that make your Playstation games so realistic and movie-like to turn her regular old computer into a superfast supercomputer.

That change makes it capable of executing the most complex scientific calculations in a fraction of the time it typically takes.

"To make those graphics come to life, the GPUs in a computer are already doing scientific calculations," she said. "They have to solve equations to figure out how a hockey puck would move or where shrapnel from an explosion would land.

"If you can harness that power, you can perform scientific research calculations much faster."

You can also do calculations that weren't possible before, she said, looking at much larger molecular systems and getting a bigger picture of what's happening at the atomic scale.

Isborn, a physical chemistry professor with the School of Natural Sciences, just received her first set of souped-up computers with multiple GPUs that will run parallel calculations over thousands of cores instead of the single- or multi-core central processing units most people are used to.

A calculation that would take 81 hours on a CPU can be sped up to 26 minutes with GPUs.

"By using the GPUs, we can look at much larger, more complicated systems," Isborn said. And the bigger the system, the more GPU cores are engaged, meaning the higher the rate of acceleration on calculations.

The new computers will require more power and a cold server room to work in, just like supercomputers do. But it won't take up nearly the same amount of space, nor will it cost as much.

Basic GPUs are made to be sold to anyone who plays video games, so they have to be priced for the mass market. Companies make a more expensive, "scientific" GPU, and Isborn said she's looking into whether that could become necessary for her work.

Engineering students solving a wild problem

Students with a variety of skills and perspectives make up a team that's taking engineering principles into some of the area's wildlands to further education and promote awareness about the environment.

Candace Sigmond, education coordinator for the Grasslands Environmental Center and Los Banos Wildlife Area Complex, came to UC Merced with a seemingly simple problem:

She wanted to find a way to teach local schoolchildren about the wildlife area even if they couldn't visit the site.

Students enrolled in the Engineering Service Learning class, through the Foster Family Center for Engineering Service Learning, stepped up. Their effort took UC Merced into the community once again to deliver a slice of education some children might not otherwise be able to access.

The Engineering Service Learning students came up with a solution -- install a stationary, solar-powered Web camera in the wetlands area and make it controllable remotely. Anyone with a computer can view the wildlife area themselves, as often as they wish, and learn about the plants and animals they see.

"We had to find ways to make the camera self-sustaining and solve issues that prevented us from streaming the live video," said hardware team leader Ruldip Jammu, a senior from Modesto. "We had elevation issues -- we had to be able to get the camera high enough so that there was nothing blocking the antenna signals.

"We also had to solve power issues, which included removing a power inverter and replacing it with something more energy efficient, so the camera could last longer."

UC Merced Connect is a collection of news items written by the University Communications staff. To contact them, email communications@ucmerced.edu.<>

Merced Sun-Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service