Supercomputing: The Future of Engineering with Prof. Sharada

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SHINE 2018 COHORT with Prof. Sharada (far right)

Supercomputing has expanded the field of engineering. While computations have always had their place in engineering research, the ability to employ hundreds and even thousands of computer processors on one computational task has transformed what used to be speculative into the realm of the possible. Because computational research is such a new field, many are not familiar with its benefits, which is why Dr. Shaama Sharada USC’s Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science came to SHINE on Monday, July 9, to share the broader impacts of computational research with the SHINE students. 

Today, engineers use supercomputing -- also known as high performance computing (HPC) or clustering -- to solve incredibly complex problems. Always an important part of cryptoanalysis or code-breaking, supercomputers are now used in fields as varied as quantum mechanics and climate research. Because supercomputers can perform many, many calculations concurrently (called “parallel processing”) as opposed to sequentially, they are capable of testing and ruling out outcomes, which ultimately allows researchers to zero in on areas for further testing.  

She also highlighted how she uses supercomputing in her lab to research complex catalytic pathways -- chemical reactions that involve a catalyst or activating substance -- and to predict novel catalytic materials for future study.  

In essence, Professor Sharada's lab applies insights derived from the field of quantum chemistry to engineering and materials science. Her research team studies the microscopic interactions between molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles and models potential chemical pathways via supercomputing in order to see how industry might take advantage of catalytic pathways that exist in nature. 

For instance, Professor Sharada and her team are currently performing computational research to hone in on the possible catalytic pathways that certain bacteria use to convert the gas methane (CH4) to methanol (CH3OH) at room temperature. As a liquid, methanol is much cheaper to transport than methane, but currently, industry can only perform this reaction at very high temperatures and thus high production costs. If Professor Sharada’s lab can locate a viable room-temperature pathway that is also applicable on a wider scale from the myriad possible pathways, then industry could save not only on production costs but also environmental costs. Without supercomputers, the nearly infinite simulations and calculations necessary for Professor Sharada's research would take her and her team eons to perform.  

Professor Sharada is passionate about this kind of research. Having grown up in the Mysore, India—a “small town” by Indian standards, but with a population of over 1,000,000—she knows how important industry is in sustaining population growth and urban research centers. Even as a budding academic, Professor Sharada was keen to foreground what she sees as vital connections between the pure and practical sciences. And now as a Professor, her current work also bridges the gap between the abstract world of the approximated and simulated and the practical world of the material and possible.  

This summer, Professor Sharada is expanding her research network even further to include SHINE student Ruoshon, who attends Harvard-Westlake School. With help from Ruoshon's SHINE mentor, Ph.D. student Zhenzhuo Lan, Professor Sharada is exposing the next engineering generation to the research capabilities of supercomputing. 

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