Why we should care about supercomputing

Supercomputers already affect our everyday lives, in subtle yet significant ways – forecasting hurricane paths, predicting climate change and making huge breakthroughs in cancer treatment.

They’ve even been described as a ‘crystal ball’ we can use to predict the future… and, yes, maybe one day, they’ll figure out the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. Yet outside of the scientific community, these monolithic machines aren’t as well understood as they deserve to be.

To help shed some light on the subject, we spoke to our very own Professor Of High Performance Computing, Simon McIntosh-Smith, to find out more about how we’re all benefiting from the power of supercomputers.

Simon picked up the Outstanding Leadership In HPC Award at the international supercomputing awards – SC18 – this month. He’s also leading a unique new supercomputing project called Isambard, as part of the GW4 Alliance, together with Cray Inc and the Met Office. The Isambard project is exploring the use of mobile technology in supercomputers, in order to build them at a fraction of the cost and make supercomputers more accessible for everyone.

Read more about the Isambard project here

World Toilet Day: In celebration of the toilet

For World Toilet Day we spoke to Gro Slotsvik, Global Challenges Research Manager for the Faculty of Engineering, about the importance of toilets and how engineers are working with local communities around the world to create global access to clean water and sanitation. 

“It’s one of the less glamorous parts of life. You’ll spend some part of your day, every day, in its company. You probably rarely think about its positive impact on your life. The humble toilet, does not get the attention it deserves.

“So opens the Water & Sanitation session of day three of the Global Engineering Congress in London. Over 2500 participants from 82 countries are finding new ways to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) together. There are civil, electrical and mechanical engineers, policymakers, research councils, UN agencies, charities, development organisations, artists and lawyers. And there is a buzz in the air.”

The sanitation challenge

“As the world tackles poverty, climate change and providing education for all, poor sanitation is stalling progress. Worldwide, 2.4 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation services, like toilets. Poor sanitation causes the deaths of over 1,200 children under five, every day. In 2016, inadequate sanitation and hygiene were the cause of more than half a million deaths from diarrhoea alone. A lack of toilets and latrines affects education, health, economic development and our environment.

“The toilet, our unsung hero of sanitation, has a key role to play in achieving the SDGs. None of the other Goals, on equality, poverty and climate action, can be achieved without achieving Goal 6. This Goal states that by 2030 all people should have access to clean water and sanitation. We need toilets to save the world.”

The solutions

“There is no quick fix when it comes to toilets. The toilet that works well in rural Somerset is unlikely to work in rural Sudan. Differences in water levels, space, number of people using the same toilet and how hot, cold, dry or humid the climate is mean that different places need different things. The challenges are diverse and so the solutions need to be too.

“Sanitation for all cannot be achieved without engineers who understand the local context. At the University of Bristol, our engineers are addressing the SDGs in partnerships with local communities and researchers. When we help create earthquake resilient schools in Nepal, map waterborne infectious diseases in the Congo or build sustainable energy systems for refugees in Rwanda, we do so with those who know the conditions best.

“In the case of making sure the world has access to clean water and sanitation, it starts with the humble toilet. Next time you see one, consider giving it a nod of thanks. Much like the engineers fixing sanitation all over the world, it’s a lifesaver.”

More information

Engineering for International Development
The Faculty of Engineering runs a number of international developmental projects across Latin America and the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia:

Making the Gromit Unleashed trail a virtual reality for hospitalised children

This summer Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Appeal partnered with engineering researchers to bring virtual reality into Bristol Children’s Hospital, helping patients unable to leave the hospital experience the award-winning sculpture trail.

a young patient tries the VR experience at Bristol Children’s Hospital

Hundreds of thousands of people from across the UK and overseas took part in Gromit Unleashed 2, the third arts trail from Bristol Children’s Hospital charity The Grand Appeal. There were 67 giant sculptures of Academy Award®-winning Aardman characters, Wallace, Gromit and Feathers McGraw – all designed and decorated by a local and high profile artists and brands, including Pixar Animations Studios and DreamWorks.

The ‘Gromit Unleashed 2 VR Experience’ was developed by Bristol Interaction Group, a research group in Engineering, and Large Visible Machine, an independent mobile platforms game studio.

PhD student Gareth Barnaby, who led the VR project, said: “It’s been a great experience to combine our technical expertise with the tireless enthusiasm of the people at The Grand Appeal to create a fun project to be deployed in the real world and brighten people’s days in hospital.

“As a PhD student, it can be hard to see where academia and the real world intersect. This project has shown the difference our work can make and the huge benefits technology can bring. Thanks to everyone at the University who has put in their time to make this project happen, and a huge thank you to The Grand Appeal for the hugely impactful work they do, and for the opportunity to be a part of it.”

Children with complex needs or those undergoing intense treatments, such as bone marrow transplants, are unable to leave hospital, so the University donated over 200 sets of Google Cardboard and two Google Pixel phones, for patients without access to a smart phone. Using the headsets, through virtual reality technology patients are transported to the streets of Bristol to see the sculptures up close and personal in a live setting with the use of 360 camera technology.

Nicola Masters, Director of The Grand Appeal said: “Bristol Children’s Hospital and the 100,000 patients it cares for each year sit at the heart of absolutely everything we do. Virtual Reality is a powerful tool, and what better way to harness this than to bring the trail to the bedsides of young patients who are too poorly to leave their bed or their ward. Taking part in such an immersive and interactive experience is having a brilliant impact not only on the child’s wellbeing, but also on their rehabilitation and recovery in hospitals.”

Geothermal energy production in Cornwall- Is it viable?

Today marks the start of drilling for what may become the first deep geothermal power plant in the UK. Falmouth based firm Geothermal Engineering are drilling two wells, 2.8 miles (4.5km) and 1.5 miles (2.5km), into granite near Redruth, Cornwall.

Cold water will be pumped down to the hot rocks where the temperature is up to 200C (390F). Hot water will be brought to the surface. Steam from the heated water will drive turbines producing electricity. If this pilot project is successful it could pave the way for similar power production in the UK.

Professor Joe Quarini from the department of Mechanical Engineering shared his thoughts on the project:

Professor Joe Quarini talks to Jon Kay from the BBC

“This is a good and exciting project from an engineering perspective. Not only will it bring jobs and expertise to Cornwall, but we’re going to learn a lot about engineering as the work progresses. We’ve seen similar, but ‘easier’ projects work successfully in New Zealand, Iceland and Italy. There are some technical questions that will be answered during this pilot, like, whether there are significant fouling issues associated with leaching out soluble minerals from the underground structures, what proportion of the water pumped into the ground actually comes back and whether and at what rate the heat deposits are depleted.

The answer to these questions will dictate the long-term viability of geothermal energy production in the UK. Cornwall is unique, it has heat-producing granite rocks with the highest energy density in the UK. In terms of absolute sums, electrical power production from geothermal is likely to be a small proportion of the Nation’s needs; it best location will be Cornwall. That said, Engineering is a global discipline, so it’s great for our young engineers to get the opportunity to see projects like this in action. We know that young people are really interested in green energy and sustainability so hopefully this will get more young people interested in Engineering as a subject.

Whilst the project excites me in terms of Engineering, I’m less confident about the long-term economic viability of geothermal energy in the UK. When the engineering costs are accounted for, geothermal energy isn’t the cheapest source of power, but if we’re serious about decarbonising our economy then it’s a choice that we, as a society, can make. That’s where funders like the EU and the Government come in to help subsidise projects like this one. My worry is that when those sources of funding aren’t available this won’t be a very attractive prospect to private investors. I’d love to be proved wrong on this though!”

Hear Joe in conversation on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme at 1:21