The fastest computer in the world is being built 25 miles outside Chicago. Its name is Aurora.

By Alli Marotti, Contact Reporter / Chicago Tribune

Smack dab in the middle of a forest preserve about 25 miles west of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory is building the fastest computer in the world. Its name is Aurora.

Once it’s turned on in 2021, Aurora will be able to do more than one quintillion (that’s a 10 with 18 zeros behind it) operations per second, said Rick Stevens, associate laboratory director for computing, environment and life sciences at Argonne.

The $500 million project is being funded by the Department of Energy. Argonne is working with Intel and Seattle-based supercomputer manufacturer Cray on Aurora. The original plan was to build a less powerful system, but after a government mandate in 2017 to accelerate high-performance computing in the U.S., Argonne shifted focus to make the Aurora system more powerful.

Monday afternoon, Argonne, Intel and Cray officials announced that they will achieve the new speed and meet their deadline of 2021.

Why build such a monstrously quick and powerful machine? The supercomputer’s ability to analyze data and learn from it will help scientists solve fundamental problems they haven’t been able to crack, said Trish Damkroger, who leads Intel’s high-performance computing business.

Aurora will have enough power to help scientists learn what’s really happening in the stars or figure out how to improve the power grid. They’ll be able to create medicines specifically for individuals, or make detailed models to better predict climate risk.

“You just didn’t have enough computer power (before),” Damkroger said. “This is going to allow us to do a lot more. It is amazing.”

Argonne is constructing a new building on its campus near Lemont to house Aurora, and the actual hardware to build the computer will be brought in months before it is turned on.

The computer could also give U.S. scientists a competitive advantage, Damkroger said. China, Japan and the European Union are all in a race with the U.S. to claim the fastest computer in the world title.

There’s no telling how long Aurora will reign among the world’s supercomputers. Though the U.S. holds the top two spots now, the rankings toggle frequently, Damkroger said. The competition is tight, but ultimately, “we don’t want it to just be a stunt machine,” Damdkroger said.

“It’s really what you do with these computers that matter and make a difference,” she said.

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