November 28, 2008
By Mark Ferguson
Photo by Mark Ferguson
The technology may be microscopic, yet the university’s new IBM processors are helping solve a huge problem by aiding the creation of software for clean coal simulation.
The U of S is the first institution in Canada to be equipped with cell broadband engine processors, given as part of the IBM Shared University Research (SUR) program. The chips, worth around $100,000 in total, are more commonly known for their use in the popular Sony Playstation 3.
According to Ray Spiteri, professor of computer science, the technology will drastically reduce the amount of time it takes to do experiments since they can compute about 20 times faster than an ordinary computer chip.
“The idea is to shorten the computation time… a job of three weeks could take a day now, partly because of the software and partly because of really fast hardware.”
Spiteri is busy creating software for the new processors that would simulate the chemical reactions and equations of converting the harmful byproducts of burning coal into more environmentally friendly alternatives. The cost of fabricating, or experimenting, with real chemicals and models is expensive and slow whereas the computer programs could answer tough questions in the clean coal process far more efficiently, he explained.
Spiteri thinks the future of clean coal has far-reaching opportunities for Canada, the US and beyond. By adding the new IBM processors to the U of S computer science arsenal, researchers can run complex simulations to study chemical reactions that take place in power plant chimneys, testing everything from temperature to pressure and the effects they may have on the chemical emissions.
“We can simulate what happens in the chimney of a coal-fire generated plant,” said Spiteri. “The idea we have is to design a catalytic converter—similar to what you would find on a car.”
He describes the process as being similar to the way a car converts carbon monoxide gas into carbon dioxide after passing across a catalyst, usually a metal like platinum or palladium. In the case of a coal-fired chimney, the byproducts such as sulfur and carbon dioxide need to be either converted or sequestered. Figuring out how this might work, or what kind of chemical reaction will take place, is the goal of the new computer technology.
“We view carbon dioxide as a resource so we can make something good out of it—turn it into something with other uses.”
Clean coal technology is gaining momentum. Grants from both the provincial and federal governments are being used to find ways of cleaning up coal burning, since it is the second largest contributor of carbon dioxide gas in the world, second only to oil, totaling about 30 per cent, according to a 2001 International Energy Outlook report.
But finding the solutions will be difficult, and even with years of computer simulation, the technology must be tested at a real coal-fired plant before the experiment can be finished. The groundwork is being laid though, and Spiteri is looking forward to the challenge.
“We could have a great impact on the future of clean coal,” he added.