OSU Gets $4.3M Nuclear Physics Grant

Oregon State University has been awarded a $4.3 million grant to create computer simulations that will provide safer environments for the United States’s nuclear stockpile, as reported by OSU Newsroom. 

Nuclear weapons are easy to damage and expensive to repair or replace. They also age rapidly, even faster than chemical explosives. The Department of Energy, which builds and maintains nuclear weapons, operates the National Nuclear Security Agency, which is charged with keeping the weapons safe – theoretically so they can keep Americans safe by making other people feel less safe. The NNSA’s Predictive Science Academic Alliance Program contracts with universities which own some of the world’s most powerful computers and employ some of the most talented programmers to solve problems as daunting as keeping nuclear bombs secure. Both of those are present at Oregon State. 

The object of the grant is OSU’s Center for Exascale Monte Carlo Neutron Transport, where “Exascale” means a computer capable of making at least ten billion billion (1018) calculations per second, “Monte Carlo” means any form of mathematical modeling that depends on choosing samples at random, and “neutron transport” is the behavior of neutrons in nuclear reactions. The Center has received a grant of $4.3 million to spend over five years devising new algorithms and training students to work at venues like Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and other National Laboratories.  

The project is led by Todd Palmer, PhD, Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering, who says, “This sophisticated simulation capability is essential for ensuring the safety and security of the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile. Our center brings together researchers from across OSU’s College of Engineering, along with scientists from North Carolina State University and the University of Notre Dame, to collaborate with the U.S. National Laboratories and [the computer company] NVIDIA.” 

NVIDIA, co-founded by 1984 OSU graduate Jen-Hsun Huang – who is also NVIDIA’s President and CEO – developed the first Graphics Processor Units, which are the basis for most modern video game systems and professional graphics systems. OSU programmers will use the University’s up-to-date GPU-based systems for the project. 

Besides securing nuclear weapons, researchers hope the project will yield insights that will help in the design of better fast burst nuclear test reactors, work toward the goal of developing controlled nuclear fusion and contribute to astrophysics research.   

John M. Burt