The combined processing power of the world's most advanced computers has skyrocketed more than 66 percent since November, according to a study of supercomputers released this month.

The study found that the U.S. is home to the world's most powerful computer once again thanks to a new IBM machine called "Sequoia," which earned the top rating on the twice-annual "Top500" list of the world's most powerful supercomputers, compiled by the University of Mannheim in Germany. Second place went to Japan's K Computer, created by Fujitsu.

Installed at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, Sequoia will be used to help simulate conditions related to nuclear weapon decay, enabling scientists to plan out ways of keeping the nation's aging weapons from degrading too far.

The most powerful systems in the world are ranked by the total number of "petaflops" they can achieve. A single petaflop is equal to 1 quadrillion calculations per second -- or 1,000 trillion operations. By comparison, IBM researchers have estimated that a single human brain can process 36.8 petaflops of data.

IBM's Sequoia clocked in at an astonishing 16.32 petaflops, whereas the K Computer maxes out at 10.51 petaflops. IBM said in a media advisory last year that Sequoia should top 20 petaflops by the time it is fully built-out.

The last Top500 list, issued in November 2011, found that the combined total processing power of all the world's supercomputers was just 74.2 petaflops. The new list, issued this week, finds that the combined processing power of the 500 most powerful supercomputers has grown to 123.4 petaflops, for an increase of 66.3 percent.

"In all, 20 of the supercomputers on the newest list reached performance levels of 1 [petaflop] or more," Top500 Supercomputer Sites said in prepared text. "The No. 500 machine on the list notched a performance level of 60.8 teraflop/s, which was enough to reach No. 332 just seven months ago."

Competition in the supercomputing sector has been increasingly hot in recent years, as rivals in Japan, China, Europe and the U.S. have all outdone each other in recent Top500 lists. Some have even compared the growth in computing capacity to a next generation "space race" of sorts, roughly analogous to the 1960s competition between scientists in the U.S. and Russia that helped establish the U.S. as a global leader in science and technology.

Computers that can crunch such massive quantities of data are valuable for research in engineering, medicine and science. Researchers have used them to design better drugs, deconstruct viruses and other pathogens, simulate climate change models and probe the depths of space.


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