New high-performance computing hub aims to harness the sun's energy

EPFL will soon be home to a European hub for high-performance computing focused on fusion power – a potential source of clean, risk-free energy. As part of this effort, EPFL’s Swiss Plasma Center will lead a campus-wide, cross-disciplinary research team.
© Carlos Castilla iStock photos

EUROfusion – or the European Consortium for the Development of Fusion Energy, which consists of organizations from 28 European countries – has just selected EPFL as the site for its Advanced Computing Hub. This research hub will be led by the Swiss Plasma Center and bring together a diverse group of scientists from EPFL’s Institute of Mathematics, SCITAS (which houses a high-performance scientific computing platform), Swiss Data Science Center (a national center of excellence in big data), and Laboratory for Experimental Museology (eM+). These experts will provide scientific and technical support as well as supercomputing capacity to European researchers working in the field of fusion power. 

The Swiss Plasma Center is one of the world's leading fusion research laboratories. According to its head Ambrogio Fasoli, “Being selected to host the Advanced Computing Hub reflects our recognized expertise in fusion theory and simulation, and points to the interdisciplinary nature of our work. It proves that our research is of interest to other scientific communities, like those in mathematics and big data. These scientists will soon be able to pool their knowledge and start working together on a high-level international initiative.”

Updating simulation codes

The research team has its work cut out for it – they will be updating computer simulation codes used by experimental fusion reactors known as tokamaks. The most well-known of these types of reactors, ITER, is currently being built in the south of France. The aim of tokamaks is to demonstrate the feasibility of large-scale nuclear fusion. Fusion power – generated from the same reactions that occur inside the Sun – could be an alternative for providing clean energy for the entire planet, without producing long-term radioactive waste.

Creating a fusion reaction here on Earth, however, is an incredibly complicated task, from both an experimental and theoretical point of view. “The field of fusion power entails not just building massive reactors such as ITER, but also performing cutting-edge research to better understand, interpret and predict physical phenomena. These predictions are based on large-scale simulations that require the world's most powerful computers. Researchers need operational support to perform such calculations," says Paolo Ricci, a professor at the Swiss Plasma Center and the hub’s chief scientist.

The purpose of the hub is to provide comprehensive, Europe-wide support for fusion simulations. Incredibly powerful computers are needed to simulate the complex phenomena involved in the fusion process, and these computers must be used wisely and upgraded regularly. “We’ll try to work in a scalable, adaptable manner. EUROfusion researchers need to be able to benefit from future advancements in computing technology. Our job at the Advanced Computing Hub will be to update existing simulation codes so that researchers can take full advantage of new capabilities offered by upcoming generations of supercomputers,” says Gilles Fourestey, head of the hub’s operations.

Real-time visualizations

The hub will also draw on one of EPFL’s new areas of expertise: 3D data visualization, using technology developed at the Laboratory for Experimental Museology (eM+), headed by Prof. Sarah Kenderdine. To help the scientists better understand the highly complex data generated by the supercomputers, Kenderdine’s lab will supply immersive augmented reality technology and state-of-the art facilities for performing highly advanced 3D visualizations.

© Photo Sarah Kenderdine Authors: Joram Posma, Sarah Kenderdine, Jeremy Nicholson

The goal will be to graphically display the results of simulations and, ultimately, to allow researchers to interact with them in real time. “What we’re going to be doing is taking data feeds live from the Swiss Plasma Center and importing them into these big systems. This allows multiple researchers to come together in a visualization space. The emergence of real time graphics is a big, booming area, where so much is possible. But how you construct these worlds is not yet clear. So that’s what we’re going to figure out together,” says Kenderdine.

The Advanced Computing Hub initiative will kick off on 1 July 2021 and run through 2025. However, most of the scientists involved believe that it could become a long-term fixture on EPFL’s campus. “In any case, I’ll work hard to make sure that this cross-disciplinary effort continues well beyond the European framework program,” says Fasoli.