Government Seeks Researchers to Develop Superconductor Computers
Computers for government agencies have hit such extensive performance requirements that power and cooling demands are becoming unmanageable. The solution? Put out a call for researchers who can help develop a new generation of fast, energy-efficient superconducting computers.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the US government agency issuing the project proposal, says the goal is to “demonstrate a small-scale computer based on superconducting logic and cryogenic memory that is energy-efficient, scalable, and able to solve interesting problems.”
High-performance computers today still use the same complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) technologies that have been employed for decades, despite significant improvements in capacity and speed. As computing abilities increase, more energy is required to run—and cool down—the machines, and it’s becoming untenable.
For instance, the new two hundred-acre computing center for the National Security Agency requires sixty-five megawatts of power—enough for more than fifty thousand houses—to operate its facility, including servers, generators, and a chiller plant.
The agency’s project aims to replace the computers using CMOS technology with cryogenic computers based on superconducting circuits. Superconduction uses extremely cold temperatures—around 450 degrees below zero Fahrenheit—to chill metal to the point where there is very little resistance to an electrical current. The project also will use Josephson junctions, superconducting connector devices that require negligible energy to switch and operate virtually without loss. The resulting computer will pull significantly less power, need less cooling, and offer improved memory capacity.
In fact, the intelligence agency predicts these superconducting computers would reduce the power required for one petaflop—performing a quadrillion floating-point operations a second—to twenty-five kilowatts, or even a one hundred petaflop machine to two hundred kilowatts. To put that in perspective, the fastest supercomputer in the world right now, China’s Tianhe-2, is also considered one of the most energy-efficient; for it to achieve 17.59 petaflops consumes 8.21 megawatts—or 8,210 kilowatts.
And that’s just the beginning. The government already is looking ahead to exascale computing, with systems that would be a thousand times faster than today’s petaflop supercomputers.