A supercomputer designed by scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US has broken the “petaflop barrier”, making it the most powerful supercomputer in the world. Performing over one thousand trillion calculations per second, the $100m “Roadrunner” supercomputer is more than twice as fast as the previous record holder, Blue Gene/L, based at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Computer performance has been rising exponentially over the past two decades in accordance with Moore’s law, which states that the number of transistors on computer chips doubles every 18 months. However, engineers have found it increasingly difficult to stick to this prediction because of side-effects associated with shrinking components. For example, if the internal clock speed of 65-nanometre transistors — the current standard in high-end microprocessors — is doubled, the amount of heat produced rises by eight times.

With Roadrunner, the Los Alamos scientists have got around such problems by employing a hybrid design. The main structure contains a cluster of microprocessors built by US manufacturer AMD. But the core of each of these chips is boosted up to 25 times over by a special type of microprocessor designed by Sony, Toshiba and IBM known as the “Cell”. This chip has already been used in Sony’s Playstation 3 — and, in fact, at least one scientist has made his own small supercomputer using several of the games consoles wired together.

The Roadrunner, which was named after New Mexico’s state bird, will be used to perform scientific applications for four to six months. These will likely include cosmology, astrophysics and climate models. After that time is up, it will be used by scientists in the military to research the explosions of nuclear weapons.