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odds for finding oil. System uses echoes to 'see' underground

In today's high-tech search for oil, the company with the fanciest computer ...

In today's high-tech search for oil, the company with the fanciest computer tends to catch the most crude. In the current atmosphere of escalating prices for oil and natural gas, the search has heightened.

That's why oil exploration firm WesternGeco hopes a Linux-based supercomputer able to process trillions of calculations a second will give it a leg up on its competitors.

The Houston-based firm announced its selection of the IBM supercomputer Friday. The machine, assembled by linking hundreds of smaller computers, boasts enough storage capacity to house the complete U.S. Library of Congress. It already has been installed.

The new computer will power WesternGeco's seismic imaging system, which uses echoes of sound waves to map underground structures.

It will give WesternGeco the ability to analyze huge amounts of seismic data more quickly, plus enable workers to do analytical work that wasn't cost-effective in the past.

''Obviously the spiking prices in energy are motivating companies to take more aggressive postures in the pursuit of petroleum products,'' said Dave Turek, IBM's vice president of Linux-emerging technologies. ''This Linux system allows data to be processed at an enormous rate.''

Turek said that only a few years ago, 3-D images of underground formations were limited to a few square miles.

Now high-powered computers can provide geologists with highly detailed 3-D maps of hidden oil and gas reservoirs across a wide expanse of terrain before drilling even begins. Supercomputers can, for example, remove seismic distortions that may result from the varying thickness of salt below the Gulf of Mexico's seabed.

With the help of supercomputers, companies today can avoid the $100 million or so it might take to dig a dry well. IBM's supercomputers generally cost less than $10 million.

''Eight or 10 years ago it was quite uncommon for companies to be drilling in the Gulf of Mexico at great depths,'' Turek said. ''But today thousands and thousands of feet can be drilled there, and it's because of new calculational abilities.''

In 1989, only 5 percent of wells drilled in the Gulf of Mexico were based on seismic imaging. Today, virtually all drilling expeditions are preceded by seismic imaging.

''The use of IBM systems running Linux has greatly expanded our ability to evaluate potential drill sites,'' said Trevor Gatus, Houston land manager for WesternGeco. ''We are able to complete jobs that once took eight weeks in three.''

Last week's announcement was just the latest in a string of Linux-based supercomputer projects that have been unveiled in the past few months.

IBM's roster of clients also includes Royal Dutch Shell, which announced in December it would use the Linux supercomputer to help identify oil reservoirs.

In March, the U.S. Department of Defense said it planned to install a Linux cluster at a computing facility in Hawaii. It will be used for applications such as tracking and fighting wildfires across the country.

IBM deployed its first Linux supercomputer last year, a system dubbed Los Lobos at the University of New Mexico.