Spotlight on Jörg Sassmannshausen

8 January 2014

Jörg Sassmannshausen

This week the spotlight is on Jörg Sassmannshausen, Computer Officer, UCL Chemistry.

What is your role and what does it involve?

I am one of the three Computer Officers in the Department of Chemistry. My task is to look after the departmental High Performance Clusters (HPC), which are used by the computational chemists to model, for example, how a catalyst is working in detail.

As we have a very large computational chemists group in the department, my work directly supports around 40% of the chemists here.

I am also trying to support experimental chemists who just want to dabble a bit in computational chemistry by giving them access to the teaching cluster and helping them and their students with the programs, if required.

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?

I moved to UCL back in October 2010 from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. There I was working as a research fellow in the area of computational chemistry, so I am actually a chemist and not a computer geek.

In fact, I am still doing research, albeit not as intensively as I used to due to a lack of time. However, that does not stop me publishing and going to conferences here.

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

Since my arrival at UCL, I have been working towards a consolidation of the servers we have.

Although it sounds counterproductive, as a first measurement we started a new server which has a very fast network between the nodes (InfiniBand), and is a shared facility between six different research groups. 

I also managed to set up a teaching cluster for teaching purposes only, again with the fast InfiniBand connection. I have to say that both clusters are well used and received well by the users.

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list?

The current project is to look into the old hardware we have. Some of the machines are over five years old and are burning electricity like hell. To give you an example: at peak time these machines are using a staggering 42kW plus cooling, which results in annual running costs of around £60,000, and are using up quite a bit of floor space here.

The aim of this project is not only to reduce the floor space we need and reduce the electricity bill – we also want to be more green and use the excess heat. 

For that reason we are looking into a new system which is called Iceotope. This system is cutting-edge in terms of how to use liquids for cooling. 

We are effectively reducing the electricity we need down to 8kW, including cooling! Furthermore, we can condense five racks into a single, double-sided rack and thus save precious floor space in the department.

The cluster is completely silent, so it can stand in an office. We could, for example, use the gained floor space as a seminar room if we wanted.

On top of all that, as we capture the heat we are running only two water pipes into our main stairwell, so in the wintertime we have an additional 8kW of heating there. The department will be the first London university to have this system, so these are very exciting times for me and the rest of the computational chemists here in the department.

If more UCL departments were to adopt this system, we could make a substantial cut in energy use, thereby saving money and placing us higher in university green league tables.

My current research is aimed at understanding how cationic isobutene polymerisation actually works. Polyisobutene has quite a wide range of uses: from car tyres to window sealing to chewing gum (yes, you are chewing a polymer!). The current process is run at -100ºC which is an explosion-like reaction, hence the low temperature that consumes quite a bit of energy.

Running it at, say, +100ºC would mean we can capture that heat and do something with it. You could say: making chewing gum will heat our homes, but I am not quite sure if we need so much chewing gum.

What is your favourite album, film and novel?

Album: Madonna – Confessions on a Dancefloor. The DVD is bursting with erotica!

Film: Torch Song Trilogy. It is funny and hilarious at times but also it also has its sadder moments.

Novel: The Lord of the Rings. No doubt, one of the best novels ever written. You can read it a few times and it is still slightly different when you read it again.

What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?

“Simon: Oh, I found a hair in my soup! Me: Are you sure it is a hare and not a rabbit?”

Who would be your dream dinner guests?

Cpt. Jack Harkness, of course! I would like to swap notes about the Doctor with him! If he is busy, I would be delighted to cater for John Barrowman instead.

Seriously, both are very good contemporary gay role models and are doing a very good job, so it would be a pleasure to meet up with John.

What advice would you give your younger self?

You are doing the right thing here, mate! However, sometimes it is better to enjoy the moment and not to worry too much about the future.

What would it surprise people to know about you?

I think most people are surprised to learn I am actually quite good at carpentry, cooking and baking. I can also knit and crochet. And before I forget, I seem to have gotten a bit of a reputation for swinging the ol' dance leg of mine.

What is your favourite place?

Oahu Island of Hawaii, where I went in 2005. It is a wonderful, peaceful island with not so much tourism around, which makes it ideal for a relaxing holiday.