UK's fastest computer goes online at Cambridge University to will help tackle environment challenge

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The UK's fastest ever supercomputer has just become operational and its operators hope it could help crack the challenge of producing limitless green energy.

Last year Britain hosted the world’s first AI Safety Summit, at Bletchley Park - the Second World War base where Alan Turing helped crack the Nazi enigma code.

During the event the government announced investment that would make British AI supercomputing 30 times more powerful, thanks to a pair of supercomputers named Dawn and Isambard.

Dawn is now up and running at a special data centre in Cambridge and - with its twin Isambard due to be built in Bristol - is currently the most powerful AI supercomputer in the UK.

Dawn is already being used to tackle some of the biggest challenges face humanity, from the climate crisis to personalised medicine.

Among the first major projects Dawn's processing power is being put towards is fusion energy.

Earlier this month at a special lab outside of Oxford, scientists set a record for the amount of energy created by nuclear fusion, breaking a previous landmark set last year.

Fusion energy is based on the same principle by which stars create heat and light and has been described as as "like putting the sun in a bottle".

Atoms are combined rather than split, as they are in the case of reactions that drive existing nuclear power stations.

The hope is that eventually it will lead to a limitless supply of green energy, which will remove the need for fossil fuels.Now the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) is using Dawn to design the UK’s prototype fusion energy power plant.

Speaking to the University of Cambridge, Dr Rob Akers, director of computing programmes at UKAEA, said: “A fusion power plant is a very strongly coupled, very complex piece of machinery – it has to be to contain the conditions of a star down here on Earth.

“So, to meet the demanding timeline to deliver these power plants for the net zero era, we must design the plant ‘in silico’ - that is, in the virtual world, using supercomputing and AI.

“This isn’t a theoretical challenge – it will result in a physical power plant that will provide significant national supply chain opportunities for construction and seed high value jobs in AI and digital across the UK.”

The quest for clean energy is not the only project to utilise Dawn. Researchers are also working with it to create personalised medicines.

Scientists are hoping to eventually create virtual twins - digital copies of an individual's biological make-up - which would then be used to test whether certain drugs would work.

Prof Peter Coveney of University College London said: “Virtual copies of ourselves will usher in a new era of personalised medicine. These digital twins will change the whole notion of what it is to be healthy.”

Prof Coveney leads an international project that has previously built a digital twin of the whole human circulatory system – all 60,000-miles of vessels, arteries, veins and capillaries – using data from digitised, cross-sections of a frozen cadaver.

Though digital twins are a long-term ambition, the research could help in the here and now - by finding new drugs.

“The drug discovery process is slow and expensive, but the use of hybrid-AI and physics-based simulations can accelerate therapeutic drug discovery," said Prof Coveney.

Work has already started on making Dawn even more powerful.

The university is working with computing giants Dell and Intel on phase two of the project which will see performance boosted to 10 times the levels it is working at now.

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