Recreating the explosion of a star in deep space – just another phenomenon supercomputers are able to simulate.

Useful across a range of scientific fields, supercomputers can be used to study drugs, climate change, and even national healthcare.

With Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL) and the Joint Institute for Computational Sciences (JICS) in close proximity to the university, East Tennessee is a global center for such technology.

In fact, ORNL's National Institute for Computational Sciences is one of the largest computing centers on the planet, the ORNL and JICS's Intel Parallel Computing Center being one of only five such institutions in the world. The world's four other IPCC's are located in Italy, Germany, Purdue, and the University of Texas.

Tony Mezzacappa, named director of JICS last year, leads the university's campaign to win a new supercomputer.

"We here at the university, we here in Knoxville and East Tennessee, are very proud," Mezzacappa said. "This is one of the things that makes us arguably the best place in the world for computing. When we talk about computing here at the university, there's so much to talk about.

"It's really phenomenal to talk about supercomputing on campus."

The new supercomputer, allocated by the National Science Foundation, will cost around $20 million; approximately $10 million to manufacture and another $10 million to operate for the next few years. Competition will be nationwide.

Mezzacappa will compete alongside a team of UT faculty and staff, many whom are joint staff with ORNL and JICS. A winner will be determined based on how the given institution plans to utilize the resource. With the computational expertise and infrastructure of Oak Ridge, Mezzacappa said he is confident in the university's chances.

"I look forward to competing for this new supercomputer and winning it," Mezzacappa added. "We've got a great track record; we're going to go after it, and we're going to win."

If victorious, Mezzacappa plans to name the new supercomputer "Firefly" after Tennessee's state insect. He said the name also refers to the synchronous fireflies in Elkmont, Tenn., a display that occurs in only one other place in the world.

Mezzacappa pointed out that much like the synchronous fireflies, the proposed supercomputer will "light up the world of science."

If the new supercomputer makes its home in East Tennessee, it will join the existing family of supercomputers, including Darter, Beacon, Kraken and Titan — the second fastest supercomputer in the world after China's Tiahne-2.

Many faculty from UT's math and science departments have conducted research using the supercomputers at ORNL. In assisting these professors, graduate and undergraduate students have accessed the state-of-the-art machines.

Mark Kaltenborn, senior in physics and math with a focus in astronomy, has worked with several different computers since he began research with a group of undergraduates two years ago. Now leading his own project with guidance from a research mentor, Kaltenborn uses Titan on a weekly basis to model exotic matter configurations in proto-supernova stars and neutron stars.

"No other computers can tackle the scale of my project," Kaltenborn said. "Despite the cost of supercomputers, they are more than worth the investment. Supercomputers let us physicists delve deep into the universe that otherwise would be completely beyond our grasp."

Technology, Mezzacappa asserted, merits sizable investment.

"If we think about the university and we think about being top 25," he said, "computing is certainly going to be a big part of that."