Government lab that gives a crap pushes open source

Boffins reveal code for turning cow pies into cash


The US government wants you to use its software, and if you're into manure, so much the better.

The Idaho National Laboratory (INL), part of the US Department of Energy, last week released a new round of open-source projects in the hope that the public will take its research and run with it.

Known for its MOOSE physics modeling software and a companion project for continuous integration and testing called CIVET, INL last year brought Paul Berg over from Amazon to serve as the lab's senior R&D software licensing manager. His remit is to oversee the handling of open-source projects.

When Berg spoke to The Register earlier this year, he said the lab was preparing to make a number of its projects available to the public. And now the floodgates have opened.

In a phone interview with The Register, Cristian Rabiti, lead of the lab's RAVEN Open Source project, offered a succinct explanation of INL's largess: "It is our job as a national lab to return the value of what we create."

For dairy farmers, the lab is providing a way to better capture the value of animal waste.

The US dairy industry creates an estimated 249 billion tons of wet manure annually, according to INL. Each lactating cow produces more than 150 pounds of manure every day, and that's without access to social media.

This bovine bounty accounts for about 2.5 per cent of annual greenhouse gas emissions in the US.

The US Environmental Protection Agency and the dairy industry would like to reduce the environmental impact of this waste. So they have been promoting the use of anaerobic digesters, to process manure using bacteria in order to produce methane for power generation. But sale of the resulting energy generally hasn't been enough to offset the cost of implementing and operating such systems.

INL, with help from the University of Idaho and Boise State University, developed DAIRIEES to make the financial case for using an anaerobic digester.

DAIRIEES, which stands for Decision-support for Digester-Algae IntegRation for Improved Environmental and Economic Sustainability if you ignore the duplicate "D," is software designed to help dairy farmers manage manure more efficiently.

The software serves as a platform for analyzing the costs associated with running an anaerobic digester and calculating reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. It can help dairy farmers understand when their manure has qualities that make it suitable for applications that command premium prices, such as construction.

Fancy being a nuclear power?

RAVEN, or Risk Analysis Virtual ENvironment, is another INL-developed research tool, but for atomic rather than cow power. It's software designed to help operate nuclear reactor systems more safely. It too is available to the public, and for those who have nuclear reactors, it just might prove useful.

But even without your own backyard Chernobyl, RAVEN could come in handy if, say, you're planning to make a tax-paying business out of it, which is just the sort of thing the US government likes.

FPoliSolutions, headed by founder and principal consultant Cesare Frepoli, has received a $1m Small Business Research grant to develop and commercialize a data simulation and management framework using RAVEN, for the nuclear power industry.

In an email to The Register, Frepoli explained that his firm intends to offer RAVEN services for nuclear power plant safety analysis automation, probabilistic risk analysis, and Risk Informed Safety Margin Characterization initiatives.

"RAVEN is essentially a workflow engine with the capability to drive simulators and model complex systems," said Frepoli. "The engine contains a variety of libraries designed to perform parametric and stochastic analysis based on the response of complex system codes."

Open-source software, said Frepoli, is critical to the firm's business model. "As domain experts in our field, we leverage new technologies available in the open source community, rely on our software engineering capabilities to integrate and commercially grade dedicate those technologies to best service our clients," he said. "We feel this is the best path to accelerate innovation in the current landscape."

Frepoli argues that safety and cost-effective operation of nuclear power plants needn't be seen as conflicting objectives when trying to make sustainable use of nuclear energy.

"The nuclear industry in the US is currently under a significant financial stress because of the energy landscape and economics," he said. "Our initiative aligns well with industry initiatives such as the NEI 'Nuclear Promise,' which aims to identify efficiency measures and adopts best practices and technology solutions to improve operations, reduce electric generating costs, and prevent premature reactor closures."

There's more too. INL has released hpcswtest, a software testing framework for high-performance computing; PolyPole, a tool for gas diffusion modeling; LEAF (Landscape, Environmental Assessment Framework), a crop management tool; and WEST (Water Energy Simulation Toolset), for water quality analysis, among other projects.

INL has divided its offerings into four categories:

Enjoy your government handout, whether or not you paid for it. ®

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