The largest supercomputing complex for commercial research in the world, designed to provide a technological cutting edge in the global hunt for oil and natural gas, is under construction in Houston and will open by the middle of next year, officials with BP plc said Thursday.

The new High-Performance Computing (HPC) center, which is moving in at the current complex at BP’s Westlake campus, would serve as a global hub for processing and managing geologic and seismic data from across the operator’s worldwide portfolio, enabling scientists to more accurately produce images of rock structures deep underground. The additional computing power also is expected to help teams become more efficient and accurate, which in turn could reduce drilling risks, costs and timetables for future exploration.

“This is not just about building a bigger and better computer,” said BP’s Vice President of Production Robert Fryar. “BP’s new high-performance computing center will be as important to our global search for new energy resources as any piece of equipment we employ today,” and it highlights the company’s “commitment to applying the best technology to the world’s biggest energy challenges.”

The facility is part of BP’s $100 million-plus investment in HPC that is planned over the next five years. The operator’s existing HPC center was the world’s first commercial research center to achieve a petaflop of processing speed, or 1,000 trillion calculations per second, officials said. However, the center has “reached maximum power and cooling capacity.”

Equipped with more than 67,000 CPUs, or central processing units, the new center would be ability to process data at a rate of up to 2 petaflops; the existing HPC now has a peak rate of 1.227 petaflops. Total memory is set at 536 terabytes, with disk space of 23.5 petabytes, or “the equivalent of 147,000 Apple iPods with 160 gigabits of memory. If stacked vertically, those iPods would climb nearly five times higher than the Empire State Building,” BP said.

Supercomputers have led to some of the oil and gas industry’s most recent exploration successes, and the competition to stay on top is considered fierce.

BP said high-performance computing had led to “vital” advances in seismic imaging over the past 20 years, including developing the wide azimuth towed streamer (WATS) seismic technology used in subsalt imaging. WATS, it said, “has transformed the way data in the Gulf of Mexico and other major offshore basins is acquired and processed.”

The super computers allow BP and other operators to test ideas before they are taken to the field, and these advances “have been instrumental in some of BP’s largest oil and gas discoveries in recent years,” it said. Management said BP’s computing needs are 10,000 times more than they were in 1999. “BP scientists can now have the computing power to complete an imaging project in one day that would have taken four years using computing technology from just 10 years ago.”

BP plans to test 15 “completely new” oil and gas plays to 2015, with 35 of its planned exploration wells targeting prospects that each have more than 250 million boe of potential resources.

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