China gives on tech metals, but not supercomputing

China's emerging power in technology is playing out in different ways

As China works to realize its ambitions in high-tech, the nation has been flexing its muscle on two fronts this month in ways that are getting attention from the U.S. government and industry.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is on her way to the region, will talk with Chinese leaders about the shrinking exports of rare earth elements, used in many high-technology applications.

"These are elements that are critical to the industrial production not only in Japan and the United States but in countries around the world," Clinton said in a press conference in Honolulu on Wednesday.

China's government said on Thursday that it "would not use rare earths as a bargaining chip." The New York Times subsequently reported that China had resumed shipping the rare earth elements, after reducing its quota for the second half of this year and then ending exports for the year this month.

But China has substantially cut its exports over the last decade and what today's events mean for the long term is uncertain.

Meanwhile, China's announced Thursday that it had built a 2.5 petaflop supercomputer, which has a good chance of heading the Top500 list of the world's most powerful supercomputers when the ranking is released next month at a supercomputing conference in New Orleans.

High-performance computing (HPC) is seen as critical to manufacturing might for its ability to simulate product development and speed time to market.

Among the groups that work to keep high performance computing on the agenda in Washington is the Council on Competitiveness, which is made up of CEOs of some of the largest U.S. firms, university presidents and labor leaders.

China's supercomputer is "certainly is an indicator that more countries are able to build and deploy massive computing systems for scientific and engineering activities," said Cynthia McIntyre, senior vice president of strategic operations, planning and development in HPC, at the council.

"I think that the position of number one is certainly one that the U.S. will like to maintain going forward, but I'm sure there are other countries that would like to take that position also," McIntyre said.

"I think that this is an opportunity to move forward to the next level of computing capabilities," McIntyre said of China's announcement.

The National Supercomputing Center in Tianjin is home of the Tianhe-1A supercomputer, which is a step up from China's Nebulae, a 1.27-petaflop system that is now the second-ranked system in the world.

But while the Tianhe is powerful, it is using U.S. chip technology, 7,168 Nvidia Tesla GPUs, each with 448 processor cores and 14,336 six-core Intel Xeon CPUs.

China is, however, working on its own chip technology. The most powerful system listed on the Top500, which is maintained by a global group of HPC researchers and academics, is called the Jaguar and it runs at the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory. It's tested at 1.76 PFLOPS of sustained performance.

Supercomputing is a long-term issue, but a more immediate issue is China's rare earth supply. China, which produces 97% of the world's supply of rare earth elements, has reduced exports steadily since 2000.

In the first half of this year, its export allocation was 16,000 tons, which was on track for 32,000 tons for the year. But then China cut its export allocation for the second half of this year to 9,000 tons, said Jack Lifton, an analyst at Technology Metals Research. He believes China may halt exports by 2012.

Technology companies that manufacturer finished goods in China and use rare earth elements for components such as magnets, or to build monitors, are unaffected by reductions.

But Keith Delaney, executive director of the Rare Earth Industry and Technology Association, said that for firms in the U.S. that need the rare earth elements, China's reported move to resume exports is welcomed.

"I think, anything that China can do to help us in the transition to total dependence on them to supply chains independent of China is the right move," Delaney said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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