Supercomputers show their added value to Flemish research, in academia and industry

08/02/2021 10:41

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On January 14th, the EuroHPC’s LUMI kick-off in Belgium took place. LUMI is planned to become one of the world’s mightiest supercomputers end of this year. A perfect moment to have an update on the impact of the Flemish Supercomputer Center (VSC). Supercomputing or High Performance Computing (HPC) is organized in Flanders within the VSC, a consortium of the five Flemish associations managed by the FWO, the Research Foundation - Flanders. In addition to the academic world, the Flemish industry is also increasingly calling on the infrastructure and expertise of the VSC.

A supercomputer has enormous computing power, which can be compared to several thousands of ordinary computers working together. BrENIAC, the current Tier-1 supercomputer, is the fastest working computer in Flanders and is designed to support top research. It became even more obvious in 2020 that this has a major impact on each of use. More specifically, the VSC made extra computing capacity available to researchers to perform specific COVID-19 research.

Minister of Innovation and Economy in Flanders, Hilde Crevits: “Our Flemish supercomputers are at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19. This kind of fast computing power ensures innovation breakthroughs in pharmaceutical research, but also plays an important role in other areas. Just think of climate change. More and more companies are also using the supercomputer. From Umicore to Janssen Pharmaceutica. It is important to continue to keep working on this in the coming years."

Some examples

In one of the VSC projects, researchers from the Antwerp research group UAMC (University of Antwerp Medicinal Chemistry), led by Prof. Hans De Winter, evaluated millions of chemical structures on the VSC infrastructure. The aim is to develop the best candidate structures that inhibit the action of the COVID virus and to be ready with active ingredients if new outbreaks of corona-related viruses occur in the future. Thanks to the enormous computing power available at the VSC, the smallest details could be taken into account in the simulations. For the most detailed and most accurate settings that were simulated, the Flemish Tier-1 supercomputer required 1,200 node days per compound, which corresponds to the computing power of more than 30,000 normal desktop computers during a whole day.

The COVID-19 meta-population model makes use of the computing power of the VSC. This meta-population model was developed by the SIMID COVID-19 team led by Professor Niel Hens and Lander Willem of the UHasselt and UAntwerp, and is used to map the spread of the COVID-19 virus in Belgium and to estimate the impact of certain governmental measurements. In recent times, this model has been a very important tool for Flemish policymakers.

The Rega Institute at KU Leuven emphasises that the supercomputer infrastructure allows them to map the genomic analyses for the worldwide circulation of SARS-CoV-2. This helps to track the distribution of new variants.

Finally, in another project, researchers from UGent-VIB, led by Prof. Yvan Saeys, mapped the immune response in the lungs and blood of hospitalized COVID patients. On the basis of that data, existing treatments could be optimized at the molecular level, and even new drugs could be developed.

VSC and the industry in Flanders

In addition to the important COVID-19 research, the year 2020 was also a success for other usage of the Flemish Supercomputer compute infrastructure. For example, in 2020 more than 316,000 node days of computation time were allocated to researchers from Flemish knowledge institutions in various research domains. The disciplines that most frequently make use of the supercomputer are molecular modelling, astronomy, life science and technology. The supercomputers are used, among other things, to perform wind simulations, to map climate change, to study emotions, and it can also help to combat crime.

In addition to academic research, the Flemish industry is also increasingly relying on the infrastructure and expertise of the VSC. Companies in Flanders can in an exploratory phase request free computing time to perform proof-of-concepts and verify that the infrastructure is suitable for their applications. In this regard, eight new companies started working with VSC last year. They can count on the support of the HPC staff.

Umicore, a global group specializing in materials technology and recycling, has been a customer for already some years. They, for example, use the VSC infrastructure to make complex simulations on how innovative materials react under a wide variety of conditions. The total computing time by companies on the VSC Tier-1 infrastructure tripled in 2020 compared to 2019. This brings the goal of reserving five percent of the computing capacity to companies within reach. Researchers at Janssen Pharmaceutica, as another example, are working with VSC to develop a molecular modelling workflow to predict the stability of active pharmaceutical ingredients. These in-silico predictions accelerate drug development.

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