4 science advances coming in the exascale era

Aurora ESP: Amanda Randles

Researchers from Duke University are preparing to use the ALCF’s upcoming Aurora exascale system to advance our understanding of the role that biological parameters play in determining tumor cell trajectory. (Image: Joseph Insley, Argonne National Laboratory)

To celebrate Exascale Day, Argonne highlights some of the projects poised to make scientific breakthroughs on the upcoming Aurora exascale computer.

One of the nation’s first exascale supercomputers is being installed at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory. Named Aurora, its high computing speed and artificial intelligence capabilities will enable science that is impossible today across a range of scientific domains, from climate and materials science to energy storage and fusion energy.

To prepare for Aurora’s arrival, 15 research teams are taking part in the Aurora Early Science Program through the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility (ALCF), a DOE Office of Science User Facility. With access to early Aurora hardware and software, these researchers are preparing codes for the architecture and scale of the system.

Here’s a look at some of the projects poised to make scientific breakthroughs on Aurora.

1. Mapping the brain’s complex connections

Argonne researchers are working to develop a brain connectome — a comprehensive map of all the connections in a brain. Such a map will allow researchers to answer questions like how is brain structure affected by learning or degenerative diseases? How does the brain age? It’s the kind of research that was all but impossible until the advancement of ultra-high-resolution imaging techniques and more powerful supercomputing resources.

“The compute time for a whole mouse brain would be something like 1 million days of work on current supercomputers. Using all of Aurora, if everything worked beautifully, it could still take 1,000 days,” said Argonne senior computer scientist Nicola Ferrier. ​“The problem of reconstructing a brain connectome requires exascale resources and beyond.”

2. Visualizing how cancer cells spread

Cancer cells can spread from one part of the body to another by traveling through blood vessels, a process known as metastasis. Understanding how this happens can guide the development of new drugs and treatments, but the process is still shrouded in mystery. A model that simulates blood flow through the body could predict the movement of cancer cells at a microscopic level.

“Tackling our new research into the process of metastasis and performing the intricate simulations needed means we need even greater computing power to handle the massive data sets in real time. The Aurora system will help us meet this need,” said Amanda Randles, an assistant professor at Duke University.

3. Easing the path to sustainable fusion energy

Fusion plasmas hold potential as a source of clean energy, but at ultrahot levels it needs to be safely contained and its instabilities must be controlled. Scientists are developing predictive models in order to increase warning times of disruptions and work toward eliminating major interruption of fusion reactions in the production of sustainable clean energy.

“To make an economical fusion reactor viable, you really have to be able to predict and then control these disturbances,” said William Tang, professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University and principal research physicist with the DOE’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. ​“In order to train the predictor to achieve the high accuracy needed, you have to use the more powerful path-to-exascale supercomputers, and that’s what we’re doing right now.”

4. Speeding the search for the building blocks of the universe

Physicists have already discovered that there’s more to matter than protons, neutrons and electrons. But are there even more fundamental particles than quarks and leptons? That’s what researchers hope to find out by simulating collision events on exascale computing systems to inform the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider.

“Fundamental research can give us knowledge that may lead to societal transformation, but if we don’t do the research, it won’t lead to anything,” said Walter Hopkins, an assistant physicist with Argonne National Laboratory.


The Argonne Leadership Computing Facility provides supercomputing capabilities to the scientific and engineering community to advance fundamental discovery and understanding in a broad range of disciplines. Supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) program, the ALCF is one of two DOE Leadership Computing Facilities in the nation dedicated to open science.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science