BP building new supercomputing facility to hunt for oil and gas

British oil giant BP is building a new supercomputing facility at its U.S. offices in Houston that it will use to go farther, faster and deeper in its global search for oil and gas.

The effort is part of a race to the top by Big Oil, as other major energy companies are tooling with high-performance computing. Officials from Chevron, Shell Oil, Exxon Mobil and French oil and gas firm Total are expected to join BP officials at a high-performance computing workshop at Rice University in February, according to BP.

“We talk to a lot of people,” said Keith Gray, manager of high-performance computing for BP. “We want to learn. But it’s a race. I am very competitive. We want to be in front.”

In a briefing with reporters Thursday, company officials said construction already has begun on the three-story, 110,000 square foot facility that will house what they are billing as the largest supercomputing complex for commercial research in the world. The construction is part of a five-year, $100-million investment in high-performance computing.

A cornerstone of the technology is seismic imaging, which  BP engineers and geologists use to determine where oil and gas deposits are located underground and beneath the sea.

“BP sees seismic imaging as a key focus for us,” said John Etgen, a BP researcher who advises the company on the technology. “The challenges never stop coming. We’re always working on improving resolution, imaging deeper targets.”

The new high-performance computing facility, which will replace a smaller existing one, will be equipped with 5,000 computers, each with 12-16 central processing units. Together, they will  process data at a rate of up to two petaflops, a roughly 63 percent increase in speed from its existing facility’s capabalities.  A petaflop is equivalent to a thousand trillion floating point operations per second.

The facility is expected to open in the middle of next year. BP says it  will serve as a hub for processing and managing large amounts of geologic and seismic data from its scientists around the world.

BP’s existing computers are from HP and Dell. It is in the process of negotiating with vendors to determine who will provide the new computers it will be seeking, Gray said.

The company is targeting new oil and gas deposits from the Gulf of Mexico to Azerbaijan.