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HPC lights up solar power research

In February 2013, a consortium of eight partners from across five countries began a four-year project to develop a concentrated solar power system coupled to micro-gas turbines for electricity generation that can compete with other sources of renewable energy. 

Led by City University London, the consortium includes experts from University of Roma Tre; the Italian National Agency for new technologies, energy and sustainable economic development (ENEA); ​Innova, a specialist in the fields of solar concentration and conversion of heat into power through efficient methods; Compower, a technical consultant company which is currently working on developing new ways to generate both heat and power for private homes; the division of Heat and Power Technology (HPT) at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH); the University of Seville; and the European Turbine Network (ETN). Each of these diverse institutions, companies and organisations is focusing on a specific activity within the OMSoP (Optimised Microturbine Solar Power system) project, with City University London leading the design, testing and manufacturing of the micro-gas turbine. 


The goal of the project is to develop a modular system that can be adopted by industry to produce a new form of renewable energy. Beyond that, the knowledge gained from understanding the build requirements of each of the projects components can then be applied to other technologies. The micro-gas turbine, for example, can have wider ranging applications within the electric vehicles industry.

Due to the nature of the project, the highly-specialised design process is being split equally between computer simulation and the use of physical models. Professor Abdulnaser Sayma (Naser), Associate Dean at the school of Mathematics, Computer Science and Engineering, City University London, and the OMSoP project coordinator, is keen to emphasise that the team’s use of physical models is not a reflection on the simulation tools, but rather it is that the research and development conducted in all aspects of the solar power system will lead up to a full-scale demonstration. 


Various challenges involved in the manufacturing process need to be addressed in a way that computer simulation alone can’t do. For example, the high-speed rotating machinery being designed and developed need to, typically, be made out of high strength and very hard material that can’t be machined within City University London. Sourcing an external company that could produce a small volume for testing – and do so at an acceptable cost – proved difficult. City University London eventually chose a UK-based company that offers a form of 3D printing called additive manufacturing. This company, HiETA Technologies, will take City University’s design models and print out the components using high-strength metals.

Of course, each stage of the micro-gas turbine’s highly-specialised design process does require a large amount of computational fluid dynamics simulation, structural analysis simulation, and thermal simulation. This level of simulation is necessary in order to minimise the time and effort required to test the validity of the designs, especially when compared to conducting analytical analyses of the designs on paper. ‘There are two critical considerations for effectively using simulation within design,’ Professor Naser explained. ‘First, for any given application the right tools must be chosen and validated, and they must utilise the available computing power to its fullest. The second factor is that computing power.

‘A high-performance computing (HPC) solution is not just important, it is essential,’ he continued. ‘We simply cannot achieve any of our aims within the project, and especially within the four-year timescale, without having access to a parallel machine.’ Before the OMSoP project was due to launch, City University London began the process for investing in a new HPC system that would be available to a number of projects, including OMSoP. Given that pace and complexity of the project, it was imperative that the cluster could be used to run complex design simulations from the very first day, especially as, in addition to designing the micro-gas turbine, the institution will participate in system modelling, integration and demonstration.

As an academic institution, City University London was required to get three quotes for its new HPC system. With budget limitations foremost in consideration, it was vital that the winning solution delivered the necessary computing power, but at an acceptable cost. ‘We essentially knew the type of computing power we would need for the project, but we weren’t familiar with the latest technologies or what combinations of technologies within a system would provide the best resource,’ explained Professor Naser. ‘Transtec approached the system from a ground level up based on our specific needs, and explained the advantages and disadvantages of a number of options. This level of support made the company the clear choice for us.’

The chosen machine boasts 192 physical processing cores and comprises the Calleo Application Server 4260, a 19-inch rackmount 4U server chassis with two Intel Xeon E5-2620 6-core CPUs (2.0 GHz), dual Xeon Multi-core mainboard, Intel C602 chipset, 8x 8GB DDR3 SDRAM DIMMs, and Intel/QLogic QDR Infiniband QSFP adapter. The Calleo High Performance Server 2860 is a 19-inch 2U server chassis with four hot swappable server nodes and two redundant 1620 W 80 PLUS Gold PSUs. Each compute node includes two Intel Xeon E5-2650 processors (eight cores), Supermicro H9DRT-HF mainboard (two sockets) and 64 (8x8) GB RAM, with 4GB RAM per core.

The OMSoP project is co-funded by the European Union's 7th Framework Programme for Research and Development.

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