Harvard Recruiting PC Power to Find Better Solar-Panel Materials

By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2008-12-08

Harvard Recruiting PC Power to Find Better Solar-Panel Materials

Harvard University has been recruiting students since the 17th century. On Dec. 8, however, the prestigious institution began recruiting people with computing power to help out in research projects that could benefit mankind in big ways.

When a personal computer is on and connected to the Internet but sitting idle, a portion of that computing power can be utilized automatically for specific projects by an outside network-provided, of course, that the PC owner has given permission and has downloaded a piece of software to do the work.

It's long been a fact that many computers and their owners around the world unwittingly contribute as "bots" to illicit networks through the use of secretly placed spyware agents. The Harvard project resembles such scenarios, but this project-which runs on the IBM-sponsored World Community Grid-is strictly on the up and up.

Intel is developing self-powered sensors for IT devices. Read more here. 

Harvard and the WCG are reaching out to find and utilize as many unused computing cycles as possible. In exchange, the owner of a PC being utilized in the grid network can enjoy the personal satisfaction of helping contribute to a good scientific cause, as well as make a number of new friends in the process: The World Community Grid has become a community of its own.

Job No. 1: Finding specific polymers that can be used to make newer, more powerful solar panel cells for home and/or commercial electrical use. That project kicked off Dec. 5 with a little champagne celebration at the Cambridge, Mass., office of Alan Aspuru-Guzik, a chemistry researcher at the university and coordinator of the project.

Right Combination of Polymer Molecules Sought

Scientists say the project will allow it to discover the right combination of organic molecules that can be used to manufacture plastic solar cells that are less expensive and more flexible than silicon-based ones that are typically used to turn sunlight into electricity.

"People connected to the grid are helping us to identify the types of [polymer] molecules that can be used in building the right kind of plastics for solar panels," Aspuru-Guzik told me.

"The way we do it normally is not now cost-efficient, although the materials are cheap because it's plastic. But if we can get a whole lot of people to allow us to use their computers on this grid for this purpose, we can sort out the chaff and find the molecules faster and in a more fruitful manner."

The Way It Works

The way this all works: Those interested register on the World Community Grid and download the 40MB bit of screen-saver-like software that allows the project to tap into the processor. After it is installed, a model of a type of molecule is then sent to the computer; when the screen saver comes on, the software automatically runs an analysis on the model to determine if it has the properties needed to be included in the construction of the polymer plastic.

Millions of molecules need to be analyzed-one at a time. That's why it's so time-consuming to do it in one location.

"When you're working on the machine, none of the power is used [for the project]," Aspuru-Guzik said. "It's only when the machine is idle that the software turns on and starts the calculations."

Project Can Cut Research Time from 22 to 2 Years

Using volunteers' computers in the grid to run these numerous calculations can shorten a project that would normally take about 20 to 22 years to just two years, Aspuru-Guzik said.

The IBM World Community Grid currently has about 1 million computers linked to it. IBM created the network a couple of years ago; it might eventually be considered to be among the top 10 most powerful supercomputers in the world, thanks to its sheer size and scope.

IBM, naturally, includes security software to protect the participants' computers.

"It's a way for people that have computers to do some good for the world," IBM engineer Joe Jasinski said.

Aspuru-Guzik said that about seven volunteers signed up on the first day. "We hadn't even announced it yet," he said.

The Clean Energy Project is the 11th project to run on the World Community Grid and is one of six active projects currently running.

"We are not asking people to change their habits when using their computer," IBM Vice President of Global Community Initiatives Robin Willner told me. "We've packaged up these services into a mashup of sorts, and it's very safe and secure. And the benefits to the user are wonderful."


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