NDSU researcher uses supercomputing to study the sun
Published April 2, 2012
Researcher Cherish Bauer-Reich wants to look inside the sun. More accurately, she wants to simulate the sun to study plasma flows associated with sunspot cycles. The cycles play a role in solar storms, which can affect satellites and disrupt a host of modern communication technologies, from cell phones to power grids.
Scientists recently warned about a series of solar storms in early March, concerned that it could affect global positioning systems, power grids, satellites and airplane travel. With the sun’s normal 11-year cycle, these very active solar storms are expected to continue.
Bauer-Reich, a research engineer at NDSU’s Center for Nanoscale Science and Engineering, is pursuing her doctorate in geophysics. She’s using supercomputing power to create a model of the sun. “I need something that has a lot of computing power,” she said. “Basically, when you’re running these, you break the sun down into a big grid. And you have to compute all these variables at each node of the grid. When you’re dealing with tens of thousands of grid points, you need a lot of computing.”
The Center for Computationally Assisted Science and Technology at NDSU provides the power for Bauer-Reich’s research. She looked at computing centers in Minnesota and Arizona to do the work, but found that the supercomputing center in Fargo provided an easily accessible route to the supercomputing needed.
“I wasn’t surprised that the university has a facility like this. I was actually more surprised at how easy it was to get in and work with them,” Bauer-Reich said. “When I’ve talked with people who work with supercomputing, and I know some who are starting to go to places like China, because it’s hard to get in to a lot of the supercomputing facilities in the U.S., either there’s no time available, or it’s really expensive.”
NDSU’s supercomputing center is available to students, faculty and staff researchers, and available for researchers and industry that are partnering with NDSU. With secure facilities in NDSU’s Research and Technology Park, the supercomputing center provides the computational performance researchers need to excel in today’s competitive arena.
“I could not do anything on my dissertation without having access to a computing center like this,” Bauer-Reich said. “It would be a showstopper if I didn’t have it because the emphasis is on the computational model.”
While people have heard of sunspots, most aren’t aware of what actually causes them. “ It’s a big tube of magnetic flux basically,” Bauer-Reich said. “These things pop out of the top of the convection zone and then they pop back in. And where they pop back out and pop back in, they reduce the amount of heat and the amount of light coming out of the sun, which is why they look dark. It’s because they’re at different temperatures than the rest of the area around them.”
Sunspots tend to work in cycles, starting at high latitudes and then migrating toward the equator. “Helioseismologists study vibrations in the sun and they image what’s underneath the outer layer. What they’ve found is that when these sunspots are popping up, there’s also a flow right next to them, so that the plasma is flowing at a different speed than on either side of them. What I’m trying to study is how strong that flow has to be,” Bauer-Reich said. “These things can only be studied using computers because we can’t really look inside the sun or go take measurements of the sun. So the only way to do it is to come up with these models that try to predict behavior.”
Bauer-Reich expects running all the computer models will take approximately a year, followed by the analysis of the data.
A native of Minot, N.D., who grew up in Bismarck and Fargo, Bauer-Reich earned her bachelor’s in physics and her master’s in electrical engineering from NDSU. The availability of the supercomputing facilities at NDSU means she can be with her husband and children while completing her dissertation, rather than traveling much of the time. “It’s nice that I was able to come back here and do research and have access to this computing,” she said.
More than 180 researchers engage in more than 50 projects using the supercomputing facilities at NDSU, said director Martin Ossowski. Projects include renewable energy, multiprocessor electronic circuitry, modeling of atmospheric plasma, ways to monitor the health of bridges and vehicles, computational biology, tissue engineering, human bone modeling and agroinformatics.
Ossowski says today’s supercomputing environment emphasizes not just speed, but the ability to help researchers tailor software to conduct their research, as well as meeting researchers’ data lifecycle needs. In addition, the supercomputing center at NDSU serves as an on-ramp for researchers to access even larger computational highways. For example, it helps researchers access national resources such as the National Science Foundation Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment and the U.S. Department of Energy Innovative and Novel Computational Impact on Theory and Experiment.
“We assist researchers who are pursuing discovery in energy, materials, environment, genomics, health and in other areas of national research priority,” Ossowski said. “We have faculty on campus who are also accessing national supercomputing centers in their research.” Transmitting data across national networks or using cloud high performance computing can be costly or in some cases even impractical, so substantial high performance computing resources are available at NDSU as well. NDSU’s supercomputing center provides high performance computing infrastructure for the campus, the Research and Technology Park, and their industrial partners, as well as engages in its own original research.
NDSU’s Vice President for Research Philip Boudjouk said computer modeling represents the wave of the present and the future in science. “Such modeling can save money before even conducting lab experiments,” he said. “All the data then has to be analyzed. Computers and data storage facilities can help make the data permanently useful to scientists for future research.”
Supercomputing is as important to business as it is to scientific researchers. In a white paper titled “Global Leadership Through Modeling and Simulation,” the U.S. Council on Competitiveness said “to out-compete is to out-compute.” For example, Boeing used a national supercomputing center to accelerate design of the 787 and 747-8 airliners and Navistar Corp. designed technologies for better fuel efficiency in trucks.
From her standpoint, researcher Cherish Bauer-Reich appreciates access to supercomputing available at NDSU. “I do think it’s really cool that I get to be here to do my research,” she said.