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.