The National University of Defence Technology (NUDT) unveiled on Thursday China’s fastest supercomputer, which could rival the world’s most powerful computing devices.

The supercomputer named Tianhe, meaning Milky Way, will in theory do more than 1 quadrillion calculations per second (one petaflop) at peak speed.

A single-day task for Tianhe might take a mainstream dual-core personal computer 160 years to complete, working non-stop — if it can last that long.

NUDT president Zhang Yulin said the 155-tonne system, with 103 refrigerator-like cabinets lined up in an area of about 1,000 square meters, was expected to process seismic data for oil exploration, conduct bio-medical computing and help design aerospace vehicles.

China’s national high-technology research and development programme and the Binhai New Area, a major economic development zone in the northern port city of Tianjin, jointly financed Tianhe, which cost at least 600 million yuan ($88.24 million).

Tianhe’s peak performance reaches 1.206 petaflops, and it runs at 563.1 teraflops (1,000 teraflops equal one petaflop) on the Linpack benchmark, which was originally developed by U.S. computer scientist Jack Dongarra and has become an internationally recognised method to measure a supercomputer’s performance in practical use.

Mr. Zhang said the technical data of Tianhe had been submitted to the world Top 500 list, compiled by the University of Mannheim in Germany, the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Centre, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the University of Tennessee in the United States.

The next Top 500 supercomputer list will be released in November.

Tianhe’s performance would make it the world’s fourth most powerful supercomputer according to the most recent ranking in June.

“I was shocked at the milestone breakthrough, which was beyond expectation,” said Zhang Yunquan, a researcher with the Institute of Software of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), and an organiser of the China Top 100 list, which was released at a national conference on high-performance computers on Thursday.

“I previously forecast China’s first petaflop computer no earlier than the end of 2010,” said Mr. Zhang.

The giant device, a product of two years of work by 200 computer scientists, is housed on the NUDT campus in Changsha, Hunan Province, and would be moved to the National Supercomputing Centre in Tianjin by the end of 2009, said Li Nan, chief coordinator of the programme.

Equipped with 6,144 Intel CPUs and 5,120 AMD GPUs, Tianhe was able to store all 27 million books in the National Library of China four times over, said Zhou Xingming, an academician of CAS and a professor with NUDT.

“As far as I know, a combination of CPU and GPU is something new used to make a petaflop computer. A GPU, or graphic processing unit, plays a role as an accelerator to make the computer run faster, but reduces its power consumption and cost,” Mr. Zhou explained.

“After it’s installed in Tianjin, we plan to add hundreds or thousands of China-made CPUs to the machine, and improve its Linpack performance to over 800 teraflops,” Zhou said.

Although its annual electricity bill can be as high as 18 million yuan, Tianhe could have been ranked the world’s fifth greenest supercomputer, according to Green500 List in June, compiled by researchers at Virginia Tech aiming to provide a ranking of the most energy-efficient supercomputers in the world and serve as a complementary view to the TOP500.

Of the world’s fastest 500 supercomputers, the United States alone has invented 291, including the top 10, Europe has 145 and Asia 49, the June World Top 500 List said.

In the same list, the Chinese mainland has 20 high-performance computers, with CPUs all supplied by foreign manufacturers.

China’s Dawning Information Industry Company is attempting to build its own supercomputer that overcomes the petaflop barrier by 2010.