MIT students power supercomputer with bicycles

Anyone looking for a way to cut power costs for their supercomputer -- and feeling particularly energetic -- should take note of an experiment at MIT this week.

A group of 10 MIT cyclists put their legs to the test Tuesday, powering a supercomputer calculating research on nuclear fusion for nearly 20 minutes. The university claimed that it was the largest human-powered computation in history.

Riding bicycles attached to electrical generators, the cycling students powered a SiCortex SC648 supercomputer, according to MIT. Several students on the MIT Cycling Team have been conducting research on nuclear fusion as an alternative energy source. The school noted that a large portion of the research is done using supercomputers that can model plasmas at nearly 10 million degrees centigrade.

SiCortex Inc. is a Maynard, Mass.-based company focused on energy-efficient supercomputing. The students, riding nonstop, powered the SiCortex supercomputer, which drew 1.2 kilowatts of electricity. According to the researchers, a conventional supercomputer might demand 10 times the power to run the same program.

A spokesperson said that the human-powered session produced more computations than took place in the first 3,000 years of civilization. He also said that more arithmetic calculations were computed than were done on the entire earth up to 1960.

The MIT team was highlighting the need for sustainable energy supplies, competing for prizes and an entry in the Guinness World Records. Google Inc. and a bike company have sponsored a contest called "Innovate or Die," with contestants having to use bike power and post a video of their submission on Google Inc. unit YouTube. The prize is US$5,000 for the team and a bike for each member.

Winners will be announced on Jan. 15, 2008. The MIT video is available, as are videos of all the contestants.

Five members pedaled for the Google prize, and a 10-member team pedaled for the Guinness World Records entry.

The MIT cycling team is slated to head to Kansas City, Kan., this weekend to defend their 2006 USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championship title.

TechWorld contributed to this report.

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