The U.S. Department of Energy is debuting a supercomputer from
Friday that it says is the world’s fastest and leapfrogs a Chinese machine that has held the top spot for the last two years.
The competition for the world’s fastest computer, ranked twice a year by computer scientists in the U.S. and Germany, is a point of national pride. The last time a U.S. computer held the top spot was in November 2012.
The next ranking on June 25 comes against a backdrop of escalating tensions between the U.S. and China over trade and leadership in artificial intelligence and 5G wireless networks, advanced technologies deemed vital to national security.
The new supercomputer, dubbed Summit and housed at the agency’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, can perform 200,000 trillion calculations a second, according to IBM—200 petaflops in industry parlance. That is eight times more powerful than Titan, a supercomputer made by
the lab’s previous top performer.
That reported performance is nearly twice as fast at its peak speed as Sunway TaihuLight, a giant machine that for the last two years has been the world’s fastest supercomputer. Sunway, based in Wuxi, China, near Shanghai, gained the top ranking of the 500 fastest scientific computers by displacing another Chinese supercomputer.
The race for the fastest supercomputer is also critical in scientific circles. The room-size systems are crucial for research in oil exploration and biology, as well as materials and weapons development. They perform complex calculations projecting climate trends and cracking encryption codes.
“We need to be at the front end of computing in order to be competitive,” Paul Dabbar, the Energy Department’s Undersecretary for Science, said in an interview.
The Chinese, with significant government investment, are currently in the lead.
In the November ranking, Chinese machines took 202 spots compared with 143 U.S. systems. In June 2013, China’s Tianhe-2 supercomputer knocked Titan off its perch at the top of the closely watched rankings, spurring calls by U.S. scientists for greater government support.
The new Summit supercomputer, which incorporates technology from chip maker
, cost roughly $200 million, according to Oak Ridge director
The Nvidia chips evolved from technology used to render graphics in videogames.
The supercomputer will be available to government-computing projects, academics and industry researchers.
One of the first projects slated to run on Summit will apply machine-learning algorithms to genetic data to identify patterns that could lead to treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and opioid addiction.
Researchers also will use Summit to study exploding stars, known as supernovas, applying more than 100 times the computational power than used previously, according to Oak Ridge.
Summit’s potential perch at the top of the fastest supercomputer list may be short-lived.
Chinese engineers are working on a machine capable of performing more than 1 million trillion calculations a second, or exaflops, which is seen as the next major milestone in supercomputing, said Bob Sorensen, an analyst with Hyperion Research, a market-research firm that specializes in high-performance computing. He expects it to debut in 2020.
“That will cause a certain amount of political gnashing of teeth here,” he said.
Write to Jay Greene at Jay.Greene@wsj.com