updated 5/11/2004 8:45:55 PM ET 2004-05-12T00:45:55

Viewing supercomputers as crucial to scientific discovery, the Energy Department will announce plans Wednesday to build the world's fastest computer at a research laboratory in Tennessee.

The supercomputer to be built at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory will be funded over the initial two years by federal grants totaling $50 million.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham was to make the formal announcement in a speech Wednesday, in which he will call development of the world's fastest computer for general science "critical to our nation's competitiveness."

The Associated Press obtained a copy of Abraham's announcement Tuesday.

The project submitted by Oak Ridge scientists envisions a computer capable of sustaining 50 trillion calculations per second.

The Energy Department project will involve Cray Corp., International Business Machines and Silicon Graphics Inc., all private companies that have been deeply involved in high-performance computing research.

The program will attempt to develop a computer that will surpass Japan's Earth Simulator, built by NEC in 2002 and capable of sustaining nearly 36 trillion calculations per second. Some computers have reached many times that speed, but not on a sustained basis.

With the NEC computer in 2002, Japan became the world leader in having the most powerful computer for scientific research -- one even faster than computers used at the government nuclear weapons laboratories.

"This computer will propel the United States into the global lead in high-speed computers aimed at scientific discovery," according to Abraham.

Ultra-fast supercomputers are considered essential in today's scientific research, from analyzing climate change and developing fusion energy to understanding cellular structures, Energy Department officials said.

With the development of the Earth Simulator, many officials believed the United States had lost the lead in scientific computation, although U.S. universities and federal research labs still have many of the fastest computers now operating.

Superfast computers do more than solve complicated sets of equations. They allow for sophisticated simulations that lead to scientific discoveries once only found through lengthy experimentation. For example, supercomputers are key in the Energy Department's attempt to simulate the forces of a nuclear explosion, replacing actual bomb testing.

"We are making this significant investment in America's scientific infrastructure with the expectation that it will yield a wealth of dividends, major research breakthroughs, significant technological innovations, medical and health advances, enhanced economic competitiveness and improved quality of life," Abraham will tell a group at the Council on Competitiveness in Washington.

While the Japanese are to be congratulated for their accomplishment, the United States "must make the commitment necessary to regain the clear-cut lead" in supercomputing, he contends.

"This is exactly what we are going to do," promises Abraham.

The department chose the Oak Ridge proposal from among four finalists. The others were submitted by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in California.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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