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Total's new machine beats rivals in high-tech race for oil

PARIS (Reuters) - French oil major Total on Friday launched a new supercomputer that will help it find oil 15 times faster than before and rank it among the world's top 10 institutions in terms of computing power.

The machine, called Pangea, will allow the Paris-based group to help gauge more precisely the potential of exploration wells and the size of its oil reserves.

Pangea helped analyze seismic data from Total's Kaombo project in Angola in just nine days, instead of the four and a half months it would have taken with its previous computer, Philippe Malzac, IT director at Total's Exploration division, told Reuters.

Total trumps British rival BP with the 2.3-petaflop supercomputer. BP said last December it was building a 2 petaflop supercomputing facility in Houston, Texas.

"Our competitors are also working on these kind of algorithms, but we think this is giving us a head start," Malzac said.

Malzac declined to disclose the purchasing cost of the new system, but said it would spend 60 million euros ($77.55 million) to run it over the next four years.

The computer is 15 times more powerful than its previous Rostand computer, which it has used since 2008, with computing capacity equivalent to that of 27,000 office computers.

Oil prices have stood above $100 a barrel -- a comfortable level for investment -- for most of the last two years, pushing oil and gas companies to spend ever more on exploration and drilling in high-risk but lucrative areas, mostly under the seabed.

Total said earlier this year it would raise its exploration budget to $2.8 billion this year, a 12 percent increase from the previous year.

The supercomputer, built by California-based Silicon Graphics International (SGI), will be stored at Total's research centre in the southwestern French city of Pau.

The global market for high-performance computers is growing at 7 percent a year, with the top-end of the market rising by up to 28 percent annually, said Bill Mannel, Vice-President of Product Marketing at SGI.

Large multinational firms are now using systems as powerful as some military equipment, Mannel said.

"At the same time we're installing Total, we're actually installing a very large system for the U.S. Defense department, with similar kind of capability, at the U.S. air force site in Ohio," he added.

Supercomputers are ranked twice a year, in June and November, by the TOP500 table (www.top500.org).

With Pangea, Total ranks ninth on that list, putting it two ranks above the most powerful supercomputer in France, which is used by top public nuclear research centre CEA and built by French company Bull.

The world's most powerful supercomputer in last November's ranking was Titan, which is located in Tennessee and was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. Titan is used in the fields of astrophysics and climate change simulations, among others.

(Reporting by Michel Rose; Editing by Alison Birrane)

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