ORONO, Maine — Muscle met machine at the University of Maine on Wednesday morning when the UM department of computer science unveiled its new ecofriendly supercomputer, recently purchased from Massachusetts-based computer company SiCortex.
The supercomputer was powered during the presentation by a team of cyclists from the UM Cycling Club and from a race team organized by Rose’s Bike Shop in Orono. The 10 cyclists hooked their bikes up to generators, which were connected to a battery on the computer, a SC648 model that houses 438 processors, each of which uses just a half-watt of power. By comparison, a typical processor on a personal computer uses 100 watts of power.
“It’s all about energy, and the importance of doing more with less,” said UM computer science professor George Markowsky. “Computer science has always been at the forefront of energy efficiency. And there’s definitely an initiative at UMaine to keep things as green as possible.”
Markowsky and fellow computer science professor Phil Dickens were instrumental in bringing the supercomputer to UMaine. Dickens secured a grant from the National Science Foundation to purchase the machine, which will be housed in the High Performance Computer Lab that he runs on campus.
Processor speed has grown by leaps and bounds since the early days of supercomputing — when computers were the size of a school bus, and in some cases used up to 150,000 watts of power to run programs and cool the computer. The SC648 uses 900 watts of power.
While the computer will be run in the future by a standard electrical current, Wednesday’s demonstration was designed to show how little power it actually uses.
“The fact that this computer can be powered by a team of cyclists underscores how efficient computers have become,” said Markowsky.
The computer will be used to share some of the groundbreaking research conducted at the university, including the school’s world-renowned programs in climate change and glacial modeling, in the new UM Science Grid Portal created by Dickens and his students. Animations and real-time visualization of scientific data will become accessible to the public — from scientists and academics to interested community members and middle school students.
“This is a way to share some of the outstanding research conducted here with the community,” said Dickens. “It’s a gateway to a large collection of scientific results.”
During the presentation, a TV screen displayed two sets of numbers showing the amount of energy being generated by the bicycles and the amount of energy being used by the computer. As the cyclists increased the force with which they pedaled, they eventually were able to power the computer by themselves. By the end of the presentation, most were red-faced and sweating.
“It was definitely a lot harder than I was expecting. It was pretty tough,” said cyclist Abe Furth, a member of the Rose’s Bike Shop race team. “It was comparable to biking up a short, steep hill, just for about 15 straight minutes. It was really fun — I wish there was some way I could power my house like that.”
James Bailey, marketing director for SiCortex, attended a similar presentation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. According to Bailey, the UM cyclists had a little more power in their pedaling.
“At MIT we didn’t get as much,” he said. “We’re not used to Maine standards of energy. It’s quite impressive.”