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Materials discovered using the new cloud computing effort from Harvard and IBM could be used to create flexible organic semiconductor cells able to be printed and woven onto bags or clothing to provide power for gadgets.  (Source: Martin LaMonica/CNET Networks)
Joint project looks to exploit the power of computing clouds to discover new useful solar materials

The use of cloud or distributed computing models is well-established, but still a growing field.  Projects like Folding@Home have taken off, allowing researchers to gain the idle computing power of thousands of volunteers to help crunch the numbers on tricky problems.

In the realm of chemical research, one of the most active fields is solar power.  Much ongoing research is devoted to creating better chemical compounds for solar panel material and even developing organic semiconductors which could make flexible panels with good yields.  However, in order to pick the optimum molecule millions of separate molecules must be individually assessed for their potential capabilities.  This requires a vast amount of computing power, making such efforts prohibitive in the past.  Thus, past solar materials research has largely been a process of slow progress by experimentation.

A new IBM and Harvard University partnership aims to bring solar cell chemistry up to speed technologically.  The new program harnesses the power of grid computing to evaluate numerous organic molecules for their potential as organic semiconductor material in solar panels.  The program is part of IBM's World Community Grid project, an initiative which lends support to many non-profit projects seeking to answer humanity's most pressing problems.  The project already has ongoing cloud computing efforts to find new AIDS drugs and to develop more nutritious rice.

Organic cells are lighter than silicon cells or other inorganic semiconductor cells.  They are also flexible and could be printed cheaply using organic inks containing the semiconducting compound.  Also, some organic materials can absorb a broader spectrum of light than silicon-based cells, allowing them to produce power even indoors.  However, they currently are extremely inefficient and break down far too quickly for commercial use.

Harvard researcher Alan Aspuru-Guzik says the new project will use multiple volunteers' computers to cut down the computing time to analyze the simulated solar efficiency of various organic candidate molecules.  He said that without the cloud's help the project would take 22 years, but with the power of distributed computing, it will finish in just about 2 years.

He states, "It would take us about 100 days of computational time to screen each of the thousands of compounds for electronic properties without the power of World Community Grid."

IBM itself is very much vested in solar research, too.  It has an ongoing program to research thin-film solar cells using CIGS (a combination of copper, indium, gallium, and selenide) and a program to build next-generation solar-concentrator cells.  It also has been developing smart grid power usage software for businesses and utilities.

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RE: Pay me for my CPU cycles
By Denithor on 12/8/2008 1:16:46 PM , Rating: 2
Except that it's by no means "free." While crunching all that data your computer typically pegs either its CPU or GPU (or both, depending on the specific client you're running) to 100% and leaves it there. Meaning your system consumes a lot more power than if it was left in an "idle" state - or better yet, standby/hybernated or turned off completely.

Now, don't get me wrong - I'm a Folder myself and actually have a dedicated box with three GPUs just for running F@H. Since the new GPU client launched I've racked up >2 million points on my three folding systems (look up Denithor at F@H).

I do like the first thought there, getting paid for the crunching results would be great. Could help to offset the cost of power & internet access. But instead of the ISP paying I think the company seeking the research should foot the bill. In the case of this particular research, there will obviously be a big financial profit made by the companies involved if/when the research comes to fruition (if they find a way to make solar panels for 50% less that gather 50% more energy -- you figure out what that's worth).

In the cases of disease cure research I think it's more about helping humans in general rather than a financial gain so I'm glad to offer my equipment to the cause. But for a for-profit research project I seriously think they should pay for the resources we provide for their use.

RE: Pay me for my CPU cycles
By Suntan on 12/8/2008 3:49:54 PM , Rating: 2
But instead of the ISP paying I think the company seeking the research should foot the bill.

Well, the idea of the ISP managing it is that they already have access to all the computers and would be best situated to communicate and deal with the “cloud” as it is. There are a lot of times where companies only want to rent other people’s super computers for a day or a week to complete a specific task, but have no desire to actually maintain one or pay for long term usage. In this instance you would not see them bother with soliciting and setting up their own group of networked PCs, but they would be willing to pay to rent the service from a 3rd party like an ISP.

From the ISP user’s standpoint, they wouldn’t have to deal with other people, it would be streamlined as part of your monthly ISP bill.


RE: Pay me for my CPU cycles
By Bruneauinfo on 12/8/2008 4:14:52 PM , Rating: 3
grid computing exists because we donate our computers. if we didn't they wouldn't build super computers to replace us, they just wouldn't do the research at all. they can do the research our CPU's provide because we make it affordable. F@H works because it is economically feasible for everyone involved. i don't see Stanford buying a petaflop computer when they can use that money to pay for research projects and use our computers for free.

surely someone here can say what i'm trying to say better than i can, but i hope you get my point.

RE: Pay me for my CPU cycles
By Suntan on 12/9/2008 1:26:31 PM , Rating: 2
First, take a step away from F@H. There are other uses for large number crunching than just F@H. While it is understandable to donate computer resources to a good cause, there are a lot of people on this planet that do things because it makes them money, not just because its solely a “good thing to do.” If you don’t believe me, go look up the words “work” “job” “paycheck” “economy” “capitalism”, etc. etc. If that still confuses you, climb up out of the basement and ask your mommy and daddy why they leave the house every morning and they don’t get back until 5pm.

FEA and CFD of new cars takes a lot of power and, while the likes of GM and such can afford to run their own server farm to crunch the numbers (although a lot of them rent computer time from 3rd parties that run their own crunching farm) smaller companies (Tesla, Saleen, etc. etc.) could benefit from more options between the two extremes.

Not to mention when Toro designs a new lawnmower or Trek designs a new bike, FEA is used, but mostly likely is not used to the extent it could be because there is not enough time to do it when you have to wait a half hour for an individual workstation to run through each run.

Having a cheaper option, renting the simulation time from a 3rd party, can reduce the cost and overhead allowing for more simulations to be done in less time.

Same principle as a time share for a Condo on the beach that you only use 5 days out of the year.

In fact, there are currently places that rent out computing time to companies that don’t have the need to justify running their own farm. They just own the computers within there farm. This idea would possibly allow for an even less costly (although admittedly less dependable) option because the ISP does not have to pay for the upkeep of the customer’s computers that it uses.


RE: Pay me for my CPU cycles
By Bruneauinfo on 12/9/2008 3:13:38 PM , Rating: 2
do the math.

"Paying an extra $500 for a computer in this environment -- same piece of hardware -- paying $500 more to get a logo on it? I think that's a more challenging proposition for the average person than it used to be." -- Steve Ballmer

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