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NMSU physicists working with Encanto supercomputer now to benefit science later

The Encanto supercomputer might have the capabilities for teleconferencing or full 3-D stereo visualization systems, but scientists in the New Mexico State University physics department are taking this opportunity to train future generations in high-tech research methods.

NMSU physics professors Boris Kiefer and Michael Engelhardt are using the Encanto supercomputer in their research efforts on nuclear and particle physics and planetary and energy sciences. (NMSU photo by Susan Prosoco)

Physics professors Boris Kiefer and Michael Engelhardt are using Encanto for various research topics from nuclear and particle physics to planetary and energy sciences. All the while, they are incorporating students into the process of using the cutting edge technology of high-performance computing with Encanto.

"We're trying to educate students and give them the tools and skills to contribute in thoughtful ways and make informed decisions," Kiefer said. "We're training them to become more scientifically and technologically literate, we're letting them know what to do with that information."

Engelhardt, whose research involves the substructure of protons and neutrons, acknowledged the importance of the component of training for the next generation and the value of collaboration with current researchers.

"One of the great opportunities that the Encanto supercomputer offers us is to introduce students to this kind of cutting edge technology, which will also make them more desirable in the work place," Engelhardt said. "If you can tell an employer that you've had experience with one of the major supercomputer centers that are currently available, that just makes you automatically more attractive."

Engelhardt works with students studying the question of spin. All elementary particles behave like spinning tops with protons possessing their own value of spin. Engelhardt, as well as other theoretical physicists, are addressing the question of a proton's substructure and how it may contribute to spin.

"It's a complicated problem, and it's being studied in experiments at Jefferson National Lab in Virginia," Engelhardt said. "This kind of theoretical work greatly influences what we do at our national labs."

While Engelhardt's work focuses on the make-up of particles, Kiefer's work deals with the make-up of Earth.

One of the major areas of research Kiefer works in is the transfer of mass, momentum and heat across planetary interiors. These are complex systems of which we mostly see the surface expression, such as plate tectonics on the earth.

The high performance computing becomes important here, Kiefer said, because researchers need to have a probe that can look very deeply into the planet. Computations, as well as geophysics and lab experiments, give them the reliable model of what the planet looks like, the minerals they may find and the chemical and physical properties within.

"We're trying to build a consistent model for what the earth's interior could look like and computing capabilities as provided by Encanto are instrumental in this effort," Kiefer said.

Kiefer is also working on energy sciences, addressing fossil fuels and where our energy will come from in the near future. He and his researchers are developing a research thrust that attempts to convert chemical energy into electrical energy, as it is stored in chemical bonds, something called a fuel cell. Kiefer's job is to evaluate current catalysts and to guide experimental efforts for the design of new catalysts.

Kiefer explained that it is hard to predict what the fuel will be in 50 years because of varied and often poorly quantifiable parameters, so that is why he's looking at energy science and alternate ways to generate energy that could reduce global dependence on fossil fuel.

"Encanto is a great tool, it's so versatile," Kiefer said. "You can apply it to a wide range of different questions. Your research becomes more question-driven, rather than trying to develop the tools themselves."

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