The forces at work in dying stars and black holes, Earth's global climate change, nanostructures and cellular membranes all will be on the agenda for some of the world's most powerful supercomputers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory this year.

So will research that could lead to better glass for Corning Inc., improved aircraft wings for Boeing Co. and enhanced computer-aided animation for moviemaker DreamWorks.

The US Department of Energy's Office of Science this week awarded 95 million hours of processing time on its top computers to 45 projects.

Of those, 75 million hours will be performed at Tennessee-based Oak Ridge's National Center for Computational Sciences, more than four times as much work as last year thanks to increasing computer capability there.

Most will go to Oak Ridge's Cray XT4 Jaguar supercomputer, ranked among the 10 fastest computers in the world and the single fastest available for open research. Officials say it now is capable of 119 teraflops, or 119 trillion mathematical calculations per second.

The lab also has an 18.5-teraflop Cray X1E Phoenix computer, especially adept at running scientific codes.

For comparison, a project requiringone million hours of processing time could run on 2,000 processors in just 500 hours, or about 21 days. Running a one million-hour project on a single-processor desktop computer would take more than 114 years.

"What we are seeing is a marvellous return on the investments DOE made in building one of the world's most powerful computers," lab director Jeff Wadsworth said in a statement Tuesday.

Cutting-edge research

Wadsworth said he was particularly "excited about the number and scope of the research projects won" by Oak Ridge scientists, representing eight of the 45 projects and about one-third of the computer time.

Those studies include research into the death throes of massive stars, or supernovae, and plasma controls for an international fusion energy project and demonstration power plant to be built in France.

Meanwhile, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, NASA and others will be using the computers to try to predict climate, emissions and options for energy policies.

There's a study for Sandia National Laboratory that could lead to more fuel-efficient, low-temperature combustion and another by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for nanostructural analysis that could be used in making solar fuel cells.

A University of Wisconsin study will try to plot the impact of greenhouse gases over the past 21,000 years. Another by the University of Chicago will simulate the movement of material from the ebbing of the world's oceans over centuries.

NASA will use the Oak Ridge supercomputer to simulate forces at work in black holes, and the University of California will use the machine to create "a billion particle simulation of the Milky Way's dark matter halo."

DOE officials say these massive studies will occupy only about 80 per cent of Oak Ridge's computer time. All the work is government-funded as long as the researchers agree to share their results with the world. Proprietary work must be funded by the user.