DOE News
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    The DOE Science News Source is a Newswise initiative to promote research news from the Office of Science of the DOE to the public and news media.
    • 2018-06-20 11:05:36
    • Article ID: 696376

    Cooler computing through statistical physics?

    In the space inside a computer chip, where electricity becomes information, there’s a scientific frontier. The same frontier can be found inside a cell, where information instead takes the form of chemical concentrations. Recent breakthroughs in the field of nonequilibrium statistical physics have revealed vast areas of research lying hidden within the “thermodynamics of computation.” Advances in this field, which involves elements of statistical physics, computer science, cellular biology, and possibly even neurobiology, could have far-reaching consequences for how we understand, and engineer, our computers. To kick-start this line research, Santa Fe Institute scientists and their collaborators have launched an online wiki for collaboration. This week they also published a paper that neatly summarizes recent advances and open questions that pertain to thermodynamics and computation.

    "The thermodynamic restrictions on all systems that perform computation provide major challenges to the modern design of computers," the researchers write in the opening paragraph of the wiki, designed to "serve as a hub and a gathering place for all who are interested." They go on to outline the magnitude of energy consumed by computers and the engineering challenges that result when a portion of that energy is lost as waste heat. The wiki also compares natural computations, performed by cells or human brains, to artificial computations, which are markedly less efficient.

    The research picks up on work by Rolf Landauer, who in 1961 postulated that in order to erase a single bit of information -- a 1 or a 0 -- a certain amount of energy must be lost as heat. Landauer's insight is well known to computer scientists and has led to an informal maxim to avoid bit erasure whenever possible.

    Going beyond Landauer's cost, the new paper tries to convey that "there's more to the thermodynamics of computation than just bit erasure," says co-author Joshua Grochow of the University of Colorado Boulder. The paper, published in the computer science newsletter SIGACT News, presents additional factors that could affect how energy flows in and out of atoms during a computation.

    To reach other scientists who might be interested in pursuing a thermodynamics of computation, Grochow and co-author David Wolpert of the Santa Fe Institute catalog some of the new tools from statistical physics that apply to nonequilibrium systems -- like computers.

    "Part of what we are trying to do with this paper is package up the lessons from nonequilibrium statistical [physics] over the past 20 years in a way that makes clear what the new computational questions are," Grochow explains. He hopes that by presenting what is now known about the relationship between thermodynamics and the microscopic processes that occur during computation, the paper will "entice computer scientists to work on a new generation of questions."

    One of these questions involves how to thermodynamically "tune" computers to the inputs they are most likely to encounter. Grochow gives the example of a calculator that is thermodynamically optimized for random 32-bit string inputs (equivalent to a decimal value of 10 digits). The majority of human users don't enter inputs that require any of the higher bits. If the calculator were re-engineered to "expect" fewer than 32 bits, would it waste less energy in the form of heat?

    Beyond the accuracy of a computation, Grochow says the amount of memory a computation requires and how long the computation takes are other aspects that could affect its thermodynamic efficiency.

    Wolpert hopes their research will expand to incorporate other recent breakthroughs from statistical physics, like the Jarzynski equation. This equation provides a probabilistic bridge between the macro-scale world, where entropy can only increase, and the micro-scale world, where it does not. Some computer transistors are tiny enough to exist between these macro and micro scales.

    "We're extending computer science theory, which was originally motivated by real-world systems, to other aspects of those systems that it never even knew to think about before," says Wolpert.

    The theory could lead to engineering advances that would enable cooler, more powerful machines, like exascale computers and even tiny swarm robots. It could also impact the sustainability of computing technology.

    "Computers now use a non-trivial fraction of energy in first world countries," says Grochow. "Given that computing is going to continue to grow, reducing the energy they consume is hugely important to reducing our overall energy footprint."

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    Researchers switch material from one state to another with a single flash of light

    Scientists from the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have demonstrated a surprisingly simple way of flipping a material from one state into another, and then back again, with single flashes of laser light.

    The Stories Behind the Science: How Does the Ocean's Saltiness Affect Tropical Storms?

    Two researchers with personal experience of hurricanes set out to investigate the role of an underestimated factor in storm's strength - salinity. They found that salinity plays a larger role than anyone thought, including them.

    Surprise finding: Discovering a previously unknown role for a source of magnetic fields

    Feature describes unexpected discovery of a role the process that seeds magnetic fields plays in mediating a phenomenon that occurs throughout the universe and can disrupt cell phone service and knock out power grids on Earth.

    Genetic behavior reveals cause of death in poplars essential to ecosystems, industry

    Scientists studying a valuable, but vulnerable, species of poplar have identified the genetic mechanism responsible for the species' inability to resist a pervasive and deadly disease. Their finding could lead to more successful hybrid poplar varieties for increased biofuels and forestry production and protect native trees against infection.

    Pushing the (Extra Cold) Frontiers of Superconducting Science

    Ames Laboratory has developed a method to measure magnetic properties of superconducting and magnetic materials that exhibit unusual quantum behavior at very low temperatures in high magnetic fields.

    Scientists Find Unusual Behavior in Topological Material

    Argonne scientists have identified a new class of topological materials made by inserting transition metal atoms into the atomic lattice of a well-known two-dimensional material.

    Wind Farms and Reducing Hurricane Precipitation

    New research reveals an unexpected benefit of large-scale offshore wind farms: the ability to lessen precipitation from hurricanes.

    New simulations confirm efficiency of waste-removal process in plasma device

    PPPL scientists have found evidence suggesting that a process could remove the unwanted ash produced during fusion reactions and make the fusion processes more efficient within a type of fusion facility known as a field-reversed configuration device.

    How Animals Use Their Tails to Swish and Swat Away Insects

    A new study shows how animals use their tails to keep mosquitoes at bay by combining a swish that blows away most of the biting bugs and a swat that kills the ones that get through.

    Missing gamma-ray blobs shed new light on dark matter, cosmic magnetism

    Scientists, including researchers from the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, have compiled the most detailed catalog of such blobs using eight years of data collected with the Large Area Telescope (LAT) on NASA's Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope. The blobs, including 19 gamma-ray sources that weren't known to be extended before, provide crucial information on how stars are born, how they die, and how galaxies spew out matter trillions of miles into space.


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    Engineering professor receives Department of Energy grant

    New Mexico State University Department of Civil Engineering Assistant Professor Ehsan Dehghan Niri has received a United States Department of Energy grant. This is a three-year award for $400,000 and is a collaboration with Arizona State University.

    AVS and AIP Publishing Expand Partnership to Launch AVS Quantum Science

    AIP Publishing and AVS: Science and Technology of Materials, Interfaces, and Processing (AVS) today announced an agreement to publish AVS Quantum Science, a new online interdisciplinary journal. The announcement coincides with the AVS 65th International Symposium & Exhibition in Long Beach, California, from October 21-26, 2018.

    Prototype Solar Energy, Battery Systems to Fuel Commercialization

    Designing, building and testing prototype systems that show how renewable energy can power devices, such as a weather and soil sensor station, can help bridge the gap between basic science research and commercialization.

    Argonne to Advance High Performance Computing in Manufacturing

    Argonne awarded funding to partner with Industry to advance the use of high performance computing in manufacturing.

    "Invisible Glass" Wins 2018 Create the Future Design Contest Grand Prize

    Scientists from the Center for Functional Nanomaterials developed a technique for making nonreflecting glass, silicon, and plastic surfaces.

    Missouri S&T researchers win multimillion dollar grant to build fast-charging stations for electric cars

    Researchers from Missouri S&T and three private companies will combine their expertise to create charging stations for electric vehicles that could charge a car in less than 10 minutes - matching the time it takes to fill up a conventional vehicle with gasoline."The big problem with electric vehicles is range, and it's not so much range as range anxiety.

    Making batteries store more energy, last longer

    A new solid polymer electrolyte may help make cell phone batteries store more energy and last longer.

    Three Brookhaven Lab Scientists Named Fellows of American Physical Society

    The American Physical Society (APS), the world's largest physics organization, has elected three scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory as 2018 APS fellows.

    Southern Research first to win accreditation under ISO 14034

    Southern Research has become the first organization in the United States to earn accreditation under ISO 14034, a new international standard for evaluating and verifying environmental technologies that was recently adopted by the American National Standards Institute.

    Kawtar Hafidi to head Physical Sciences and Engineering directorate at Argonne

    Physicist Kawtar Hafidi has been appointed Associate Laboratory Director, Physical Sciences and Engineering at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory.


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    Cryocooler Cools an Accelerator Cavity

    Researchers demonstrated cryogen-free operation of a superconducting radio-frequency cavity that might ease barriers to its use in societal applications.

    Shining Light on the Separation of Rare Earth Metals

    New studies identify key molecular characteristics to potentially separate rare earth metals cleanly and efficiently with light.

    Placing Atoms for Optimum Catalysts

    Precise positioning of oxygens could help engineer faster, more efficient energy-relevant chemical transformations.

    How to Make Soot and Stardust

    Scientists unlock mystery that could help reduce emissions of fine particles from combustion engines and other sources.

    Breaking the Symmetry Between Fundamental Forces

    Scientists improve our understanding of the relationship between fundamental forces by re-creating the earliest moments of the universe.

    Water Plays Unexpected Role in Forming Minerals

    Water molecules line up tiny particles to attach and form minerals; understanding how this happens impacts energy extraction and storage along with waste disposal.

    Heavy Particles Get Caught Up in the Flow

    First direct measurement show how heavy particles containing a charm quark get caught up in the flow of early universe particle soup.

    Seeing Between the Atoms

    New detector enables electron microscope imaging at record-breaking resolution.

    Scaling Up Single-Crystal Graphene

    New method can make films of atomically thin carbon that are over a foot long.

    Discovered: Optimal Magnetic Fields Suppress Instabilities in Tokamak Plasmas

    U.S. and Korean scientists show how to find and use beneficial 3-D field perturbations to stabilize dangerous edge-localized modes in plasma.


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