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.
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."