IBM’s goal is a petaflop computer the size of a large backpack and not a basketball court

IBM has the goal of a 1 petaflop computer in a 10 liter size (10 liter kitchen garbage bags and waste containers are common). 1 petaflop means a computer can complete a quadrillion floating-point mathematical operations per second. Today’s top supercomputer clocked in at 33.86 petaflops, but it uses 32,000 Xeon processors and 48,000 Xeon Phi accelerator processors.

IBM is using the brain as a template for breakthrough designs such as the idea of using fluids both to cool the machine and to distribute electrical power. That could enable processing power that’s densely packed into 3D volumes rather than spread out across flat 2D circuit boards with slow communication links.

It’s all part of what IBM calls the cognitive systems era, in which computers aren’t just programmed, but also perceive what’s going on, make judgments, communicate with natural language, and learn from experience. It’s a close cousin to that decades-old dream of artificial intelligence.

IBM has a new yardstick: operations per liter. The company is judging success by how much data-processing ability it can squeeze into a given volume. Today’s computers must be laid out on flat circuit boards that ensure plenty of contact with air that cools the chips.

“In a computer, processors occupy one-millionth of the volume. In a brain, it’s 40 percent. Our brain is a volumetric, dense, object,” said Bruno Michel, a researcher in advanced thermal packaging for IBM Research, who got his Ph.D in biophysics.

Common 10 liter kitchen garbage container

Similar in size to tower PC servers that were about 10 liters in volume

The fix is to stack chips into dense 3D configurations, with chips linked using a technology called through-silicon vias (TSVs). That’s impossible today because stacking even two chips means crippling overheating problems. But IBM believes it’s got an answer to the cooling problem: a branching network of liquid cooling channels that funnel fluid into ever-smaller tubes.

The liquid passes not next to the chip, but through it, drawing away heat in the thousandth of a second it takes to make the trip, Michel said. The company has demonstrated the approach in an efficient prototype system called Aquasar. (Get ready for another new yardstick: greenhouse gas emissions. Aquasar can perform 7.9 trillion operations per second per gram of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.)

Liquid power and cooling

IBM can deliver up to 1 watt of power per square centimeter with this technology called a flow battery, which transports electrical power stored chemically. Here, vanadium electrolytes power a microfluidics chip in a lab demonstration. Ultimately IBM hopes to use liquids both to cool and power computers.
(Credit: Stephen Shankland/CNET)

IBM also is developing a system called a redox flow battery that also uses it to distribute power instead of using wires. Two liquids called electrolytes, each with oppositely charged electrical ions, circulate through the system to distribute power. Think of it as a liquid battery interlaced through the interstices of the machine.

“We are going to provide cooling and power with a fluid,” Michel said. “That’s how our brain does it.”

Michel estimates the liquid power technology will take 10 to 15 years to develop, but when it works, it’ll mean supercomputers that fit into something the size of a backpack, not a basketball court.


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