Online Extra: Counting the Femtoseconds

The Energy Dept.'s 20-year R&D plan aims to push the frontiers of fusion power, supercomputing, and nanotechnology

Amid worries that America's research and innovation is waning as industry trims its R&D budgets, the U.S. Energy Dept. is gearing up to help plug the gaps. Last November, Energy released its research plan for the next 20 years. It's the first such long-range plan Energy has drawn up. The vision calls for investing billions of dollars to create cutting-edge tools and facilities aimed at breakthroughs in such areas as materials science, biology, environmental science, physics, and computing.

"We're talking about major new and upgraded facilities," says Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. The goal is to buttress America's position as the world's best haven for research. Do that, Abraham adds, and American innovativeness will hang tough "because we'll continue to be able to recruit the world's brightest minds."


  The National Science Foundation is on the same wavelength. In September, the NSF coughed up $69 million to fund six new centers in nanoscale science and engineering, and next year it wants to spend $81 million on nano research, including two more nano centers. These eight new facilities would double the existing number -- all created since 2001, when the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) was launched with a budget of $464 million. Next year's NNI funding doubles that figure, to $982 million. The NSF, the Pentagon, and Energy would chip in roughly 80% of the total.

All told, Washington this year will spend $105 billion on R&D, 4% more than last year. The Health & Human Services Dept. is the biggest R&D booster, accounting for 52% of federal outlays. The Defense Dept. is next, with an 11% share, followed closely by NASA and Energy. They each hand out roughly 10% of federal R&D money.

For Energy, the No. 1 priority in its 20-year plan is fusion power. To fulfill the dream of virtually limitless, cheap, and comparatively clean energy, the U.S. last year rejoined the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project. The other members of this $5 billion program are China, the European Union, Japan, Korea, and Russia. ITER hopes to develop a blueprint for commercial fusion-power plants that could be operating by around 2040.


  The about-face came just five years after the U.S. bowed out of the project. What prompted the decision to return? It was the results from running a model of ITER's design on one of the beefy new supercomputers funded by Energy's Office of Science.

"It gave us confidence that ITER will succeed," says theoretical physicist Raymond L. Orbach. He heads the department's science arm, which sponsors nonmilitary research at universities, think tanks, and national labs. With a budget of $3-plus billion, it supports 40% of all U.S. federally funded research in the physical sciences, including computer science.

The ITER simulation involved a mountain of data that would have choked a mid-1990s supercomputer. Even on today's best hardware, that's a lot to swallow. A simulation accurate enough to explain certain puzzling phenomena in a fusion reactor would require 100 times more muscle than all the computers at all of Energy's research labs.

Delivering that hundredfold boost in number crunching happens to be the second-highest priority in Energy's 20-year plan. Dubbed the UltraScale Scientific Computing Capability, or USSCC, this cornucopia computer network will yield "enormous economic and scientific benefits," says Orbach. In addition to providing more oomph for fusion-energy research, so-called ultrascale computing will be a workhorse for Energy's Scientific Discovery through Advanced Computing program (SciDAC).


  SciDAC was launched in 2001 to probe new frontiers in science. It now targets 50-odd projects involving teams at the Energy Dept's national laboratories and at dozens of universities. Oak Ridge National Lab will provide a foretaste of ultrascale power. Monster computers from Cray (CRAY ) will, by 2007, give Oak Ridge the brawn to chew through 350 teraflops. That's an amazing 350 trillion calculations in one second. "It'll be a huge increase," says Orbach -- almost five times last year's nondefense capacity at all of the national labs.

Still mightier computing systems will be vital, though. That's because the bulk of future discoveries in science and engineering are likely to stem from digital models. Sophisticated simulations, Orbach explains, are fast becoming more fruitful than the traditional interplay between experiment and theory. To blaze new trails efficiently, scientists are itching for computers that can handle 50 teraflops and up -- more than double America's top supercomputer.

Faster computers alone won't be sufficient, however. For breakthroughs in drugs, chemistry, and biotechnology, scientists need more information about the molecular world before they can develop accurate simulations.


  That's where the Linac Coherent Light Source comes in. It will be built into the three-kilometer-long collider tunnel at Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. Due to begin limited operation perhaps by late 2007, Linac will be the world's most powerful X-ray machine by far.

The $315 million system will also be the fastest strobe ever, producing laser pulses of X-rays measured in mere femtoseconds -- quadrillionths of a second. These ultrashort pulses are expected to produce stop-action images of processes never before seen. Turned into slow-motion movies, Linac's pictures will enable researchers to study the secrets of how proteins unfold, watch chemical reactions in precise detail, and inspect the nanoscopic structure and performance of materials under stress.

Coming a bit sooner is the $1.4 billion Spallation Neutron Source at Oak Ridge. SNS is slated to start up in 2006. It will be the world's most intense source of neutron beams. Because neutrons have a neutral charge, they can poke deep inside solids and molecular structures -- yielding insights that can help pharmaceutical researchers, polymer chemists, and materials scientists to design better drugs, plastics, and metals.

If you're wondering what spallation is, think chipping with a blunt hammer. In the SNS, protons will hammer mercury atoms and chip off neutrons. The neutrons are then collected, formed into a beam, and spit out in 10-millisecond pulses.


  Energy's 20-year roadmap was constructed on the basis of advances that researchers could envision in science and technology. But if the past is any guide, says Abraham, the plan's ultimate value may turn out to be the surprises that crop up and point scientists down unexpected paths. Provide researchers with spiffy new tools, and there's no telling what discoveries they'll unearth.

"But there will be a big discovery," predicts Abraham. That's the real wonder of science.

By Otis Port

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