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Researchers Use Household PCs For Solar Power Study

December 8, 2008

In an ambitious effort to revolutionize the green energy world, scientists at Harvard University and IBM are hoping to harness the power of a million idle computers to develop a new, cheaper form of solar power.

The project uses IBM’s World Community Grid, which taps into volunteers’ computers across the globe to run calculations on a myriad of compounds, which could potentially shorten the project from the proposed 22 years to just two years.

Scientists at Harvard are hoping the project will lead to a combination of organic materials that can be used to manufacture plastic solar cells that are cheaper and more flexible than the silicon-based ones used to turn sunlight into electricity.

Experts suggest the technology could be used to coat windows, make backpacks or line blankets to produce electricity from the sun’s rays. The tools needed to make the plastic cells already exist, but they are not yet efficient enough to be rolled out in commercial products.

Alan Aspuru-Guzik, a chemistry researcher at Harvard University, said right now it isn’t cost efficient, although the materials are cheap because it’s plastic.

He said the most efficient silicon-based photovoltaic solar cells convert about 20 percent of the sunlight that strikes them into electricity.

The organic cells can, as of now, turn only about 5 percent of the sunlight into power “” half the level needed to make the low-cost cells a viable energy source.

Once they have discovered a possible combination of compounds, the researchers plan to publish results of the work.

The World Community Grid was developed by IBM to advance research of humanitarian projects, such as fighting cancer, dengue fever and AIDS. The grid connects computers in homes or offices via the Internet with program on each machine to run calculations that feed back to the database.

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

Now that over a million volunteers are linked to the World Community Grid, IBM is confident it has created a network with a massive calculating capability that would rank it among the top 10 most powerful supercomputers in the world.

Participants of the grid download software to their personal computers that run the calculations as a screensaver program on the machine when it is turned on but not in use.

Security software is included to protect the participants’ computers.

Other virtual networks are also in place to crunch data for different projects, such as SETI’s effort to sift through radio telescope signals for signs of extraterrestrial life in the universe.

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